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If you feel like you’re in a state where you are not really doing work that’s that useful, and you are also not really relaxing — the claim I want to make is that it is strictly better to be actually relaxing.

Because if you are actually relaxing, you will have the capacity to work in the future, whereas if you stay in this state forever, you will never recover enough to get out of it.

Alex Lawsen

In this episode of 80k After Hours, Keiran Harris interviews 80,000 Hours advisor (and former high school teacher) Alex Lawsen about his advice for students.

We cover:

  • When half-assing something is a good idea
  • When you should actually learn things vs just try to seem smart
  • Why you should shift your focus over the academic year
  • Novel tips for preparing for exams
  • What to do if you struggle with motivation
  • What to do when you have bad teachers
  • How students should think about exploring and experimenting
  • Bad approaches to learning
  • How to think about personal goals
  • When to start thinking about your career seriously
  • And more

Who this episode is for:

  • Students, parents, and teachers
  • People who know a student, parent, or teacher
  • People with an interest in improving education

Who this episode isn’t for:

  • People who never interact with students, parents, or teachers
  • People who get mad when an 80,000 Hours podcast doesn’t feature Rob Wiblin

Get this episode by subscribing to our more experimental podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ‘80k After Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ryan Kessler
Transcriptions: Katy Moore

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue, original 1924 version” by Jason Weinberger is licensed under creative commons

Highlights

Key takeaways

  1. Just try a bunch of stuff and see what works. This seems pretty good, especially early on. There is just a bunch of value you can get out of doing a bunch of experiments, and getting stuff wrong, and then seeing what works. So yeah, maybe consider this whole episode as a list of things to try. Try some of them, and if they don’t work, throw them away. But if they do work, maybe this is something you can use for a long time.
  2. You can just get a ton better at stuff by really intentionally practicing it. And I think I do make this point a couple of times. So intentionally practicing works best when you have clear success criteria, and also when the thing you’re practicing is the right level of challenge for you. Basically like if you want to get better at something, just try and do that thing. That seems pretty key.
  3. Think carefully about what you want to get out of a situation. Like, what are you shooting for? What’s your main goal? Really considering that question might lead you to act in quite a different way in a particular situation, or use quite a different strategy, as the one you would have defaulted to, had you not been considering, “What’s my actual goal here?”
  4. As some of you might have suspected when Keiran and I were talking about things I personally found hard when I was at school, since this episode, I’ve actually been diagnosed with ADHD. And so maybe there’s some final lesson, which is: If you find stuff difficult, maybe just ask for help with it. Maybe ask someone else if there’s some way of you finding the thing less difficult. Because for me, it took a bunch of friends and colleagues and my partner really supporting me along the way. But it’s made a massive difference to my life already, having a diagnosis and being able to access treatment for something which turns out I’ve been finding hard for a really long time.

Actually learning vs trying to seem smart

Alex Lawsen: If you’re interacting with someone — let’s say you’re interacting with a teacher or with another student — one thing you may be trying to do in a situation is actually trying to learn, and some other thing you might be trying to do in that situation is trying to seem smart.

Alex Lawsen: And I’m actually not going to make a claim about which of these things is the better thing to try to do in each situation. It’s useful to sound smart. I actually think that one thing that I am kind of good at in some situations is sounding smart. And maybe I caveat too much to try and compensate for this. I think probably what happens is me just being able to caveat really heavily the things I’m saying — but then still saying them — actually doesn’t help with the “sounding smart” thing at all.

Alex Lawsen: I think it’s valuable for people to think you are worth spending time on, so maybe in some situations you should try and sound smart. But I think it can also be really harmful, because one of the most valuable things to help you progress your own learning is to actually notice when you’re uncertain about something, and ask for clarification immediately. It’s just way easier to have someone who already knows the thing tell you.

Alex Lawsen: If you’ve got two models — two explanations for a question, or two things that might be an interpretation of what someone just said — sometimes it’s just going to be really hard to work out which one’s true on your own. You can just ask them, and then you just get the answer instantly and you don’t have to do all that mental labor — and then you could bother working out what that piece of information is useful for.

Alex Lawsen: This is a really clear example where, if you’re in a situation where you’re trying to learn, I claim you should not care at all about sounding smart, and you should be prepared to ask pretty stupid-sounding questions. And you should be prepared to look stupid occasionally, because you asked something that was very obvious to everyone else in the situation. But actually — especially if it was very obvious to everyone else in the situation — it seems really important that you know that quickly, so you can then access all of the other stuff.

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think this is the best example, because it doesn’t seem super extreme, and it seems plausible that lots of people are trying to do at least some of both of these things in lots of situations. Basically you should actually think, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this thing?” And then say, “Okay, if the reason I’m doing this thing is X, then how can I do this thing in a way to maximize X?”

Actually trying to learn a subject

Alex Lawsen:I think maybe it’s easiest to talk about what this doesn’t look like. Something that frustrated me when I was teaching sometimes — in that it didn’t look very like this, it didn’t look very helpful — was people going like, “Sure, you’ve told me this idea, but what do I need to know for the exam?” And I’m speaking specifically about maths and physics here — because these are the subjects I ended up specializing in — but they both have many connections between them. I claim that trying to see the big picture — and trying to work out where the current thing you’re learning fits into the big picture, and how it connects to other stuff — is very valuable for gaining actual, deep understanding of the subject.

Alex Lawsen: If, whenever you get a new piece of information, the reaction to it is, “How do I package this to be able to reproduce it in a certain format later?” then you don’t try as hard to make those connections. You don’t try as hard to actually grok the thing. And this feels like a fairly severe mistake unless you are under some time pressure — i.e. unless there is an exam around the corner.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. I imagine for a lot of students, this is just ingrained, that they’re trying to learn things for the exams. So even if this sounds good, do you have tips on how to actually achieve this mindset shift?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, that’s a great question. Maybe something to do is try and work out what it would look like to be doing this well. I think there’s a few things I can point out here.
One thing is actually trying to look for these connections — so trying to ask the question yourself, “Why is this valuable?” But not why is this valuable as in “because I can use it in an exam” — but “Why did someone bother to invent this thing? Why does it matter?”

Alex Lawsen: Another thing is, “Can I explain this concept to someone else?” You could literally do this, and I actually really strongly recommend this. I think one of the best ways of improving your knowledge of a thing is trying to teach other people that thing, because they ask you questions — annoying, basic questions sometimes — about why: “Why do you do it that way? Why does that thing work? Why does that step come after that one?” And you have to come up with an answer, especially if you are better than them in some sense. There’s no option to be like, “Oh, I actually don’t know,” because then the response is, “Well, why are you explaining this then?”

Alex Lawsen: So yeah, if you have someone that you feel able to help, who’s a bit worse than you, then explaining it to them seems great. If you have some friends who are studying the same stuff, then trying to explain stuff to each other, and check that you all get it. And trying to argue with each other about whether you understand the things in the right way seems good. And failing both of those, imagining a younger version of you, and seeing what you would say to them, including a much younger version. You can be like, let’s say you are 18. “How would I explain this to a 15-year-old? How would I explain this to a 10-year-old? Is there anything meaningful I could explain to a five-year-old about this?” The ages are arbitrary, right? But “Can I explain this at multiple levels of simplicity?” seems a good way of checking whether you’ve actually got it.

Struggling with motivation

Alex Lawsen: There are many reasons to struggle with motivation — the things to say, and the things for students listening to this to try, will somewhat depend on the thing that’s going on. So maybe a useful place to start is like, is their motivation coming from feeling overworked, or stressed, or burnt out, or something like that? This was probably the most common thing for students I taught. The school was pretty high performing — it got very good exam results — and lots of the students there were working very hard, and all of their friends were also working very hard. So this is an environment where there’s an expectation to do lots of work, and this can feel overwhelming.

Alex Lawsen: In this case, you’re just like, “I have to be working. Everyone else is working.” This seems really overwhelming. This can lead to just being like, “I don’t want to do any work at all.” And I think one really valuable thing to do in this case, and maybe some of the most value I ever gave to students, was I explicitly gave them permission to rest, or to switch off, or to not be productive. I literally mean I said the words: “I give you permission to rest if you are not doing useful stuff.”

Alex Lawsen: I actually think maybe this is useful to do now. So if you’re listening to this, and you’re feeling like there’s too much work on, you have permission — for whatever it means — to actually stop. And maybe the way to phrase this — that feels most allowable for someone who’s in the mindset of “I must work because it’s really important that I work” — is that it seems pretty true to say something like, “You should do as much as you can and no more.” And the key thing about this is “as much as you can” is sometimes zero.

Alex Lawsen: If in fact you are not being useful — and when we say “not being useful,” we mean not being useful on net, so it might be you’re working at like 2% capacity — because you’re really stressed, and also costing yourself the ability to work in the future, because you’re making yourself even more stressed, and more tired, and more burnt out — then doing nothing is the most you can do. And in those scenarios, actually doing nothing and saying, “I am going to stop; I need to rest” is the best thing you can do. And so you should actually do it.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. That just sounds like obviously great advice. I can imagine that being really hard to actually follow through with. Beyond listening to this podcast and hearing you say, “I give you permission” — which is hopefully helpful — do you have any other tips for how to actually make this feel okay?

Alex Lawsen: I think there’s something I can point at, which is the case where you have pretty strong evidence you should be resting, and maybe that will help. The thing I’m thinking of here is like a state that, if I describe it — even though I probably won’t do a great job of describing it — I think people who’ve been in this state will recognize what I’m talking about very quickly. This is the state of like kind of working and kind of resting, and feeling bad about both. And so this could look like having books open and staring into space. It could look like scrolling on your phone, or watching TV, or messaging your friends in between answering questions. But the “skew of time” is mostly the relaxing thing — most of your time is spent doing the relaxing thing, and then sometimes you’re doing the work thing.

Alex Lawsen: And actually what’s going on here is the relaxing part of whatever you are doing isn’t relaxing you — because the relaxing part is just making you feel bad about not working, but you’re also not doing any useful work. And if you feel like you’re in this state — where you are not really doing work that’s that useful, and you are also not really relaxing — the claim I want to make is that it is strictly better to be actually relaxing. Because if you are actually relaxing, you will have the capacity to work in the future, whereas if you stay in this state forever, you will never recover enough to get out of it.

Half-assing

Alex Lawsen: I think probably the most important thing to really do — and this is actually not super action-guiding, and maybe is one of the things that’s going to generalize more than the other stuff — is actually bother to think about what your goal is in a particular situation, and then decide how hard to shoot for that.

Alex Lawsen: So one idea here is if you’re doing a piece of work, and you don’t think the piece of work is super valuable to anything you care about — so let’s say, you don’t think this thing is going to be super valuable to you getting better grades, or super valuable to you actually understanding something you want to understand. Then what is the goal of you doing it? If the goal of you doing it is to not get in trouble, then doing sufficiently well that you don’t get in trouble — and no better than that — seems like a good strategy.

Keiran Harris: Can you give an example of something like this, where you think a student should actually be fairly confident this has no value?

Alex Lawsen: I think maybe something to flag about the UK school system is that often people will just pick a few subjects to specialize in fairly early. If this is not the case — if you’re studying multiple subjects and you know that there are some that are just going to be the thing you’re focusing on later — then it seems at least plausible that your goal in the other subjects should just be to get the grades you need, or to pass the thing.

Alex Lawsen: Maybe the canonical example for someone in the UK would be: You’re finishing your GCSEs. You know you are going to get the highest score you can in English, and you know you’re dropping English and don’t have any other writing subjects. That seems a reasonable case to just be like, “I’m going to do what I’ve been asked to, and absolutely no more.”

Keiran Harris: That seems right.

Alex Lawsen: I think this is maybe the example that teachers will most dislike, so I should probably flag here that it seems at least possible — if your teachers are vaguely competent — that you’ve been asked to do something that you don’t see the value of, but there is actually value in. So you should be sure that that isn’t the case, before you go, “I’m going to half-ass this.” But yeah, maybe this is the one that I think is going to be most salient to bright kids who are sitting in school or something.

Shifting your focus over the academic year

Alex Lawsen: One thing that I have tried to do in my teaching — and I think that students should be trying to do in their learning — is as an academic year progresses, changing the focus. My rough claim is something like, at the start of the year, you are pretty far away from any exams, and your focus should be — as much as possible — actually try to learn the subject, actually try to just get good and understand the subject.

Alex Lawsen: Then as you get further towards your endpoint, as you get closer to an exam, I think that becomes less important or maybe less tractable or something, and you should start being much more specific and going, “Okay, I have an exam. How do I pass the exam?” And learning the subject and passing exams are correlated, but you can do somewhat different things to try to actually achieve those goals.

Keiran Harris: When you say, “as you get closer to your exam,” do you have a rough estimate of how long that should be? Are you saying a month before the exams come up? Longer?

Alex Lawsen: I think I picture this as somewhat continuous, but as a rough guide in my teaching… In England, we have three terms, and I approximately spent the first two terms introducing new material and trying to convince the students that they should actually try and understand that material, and then approximately the third term going, “You have heard at least once all of the material. Let’s try and work out how you are going to reproduce that in an exam, get ready for that.” So approximately two-to-one across the year, but I envisage it slightly more continuous than that.

Prepping for exams

Alex Lawsen: Let’s start with the obvious stuff. You are going to go and sit in a room and be tested on your knowledge of a bunch of material by having to answer questions that you haven’t seen before, without any notes in front of you. So to first approximation, the thing you should do to prepare for that is be in a room without any notes, and have some questions in front of you that you haven’t seen before, and try to answer them to the best of your ability.

Alex Lawsen: And kind of nothing else matters. And I said “kind of,” and I do actually want to dig into some things you can do that aren’t exactly that — because that can be stressful, and certainly you shouldn’t do it all the time and at the start, unless you’re just incredibly resilient and have an arbitrarily large stack of past papers.

Alex Lawsen: But if you’re spending the majority of your time doing anything other than something that looks very like the thing you’re preparing for, you should have a very good reason for that. Because actually if you want to get better at a thing, you should do something that looks extremely like that thing.

Keiran Harris: Okay, so you said that you shouldn’t just be practicing exam papers. Why not?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, so one reason might be that you just don’t have that many. Let’s say you are preparing for an A Level maths paper. In this case, you are relatively lucky, because A Level maths has existed for a long time, and the format hasn’t changed that much. So you can probably find a bunch of papers that look at least somewhat like the paper you are going to be sitting, or a past year’s version of the paper you’re going to be sitting, and you can just try a bunch of those. And then leave the ones that look most like the thing that you are preparing for towards near the end.

Alex Lawsen: It may be though, that your exam looks different to previous years. Maybe the syllabus has recently changed. That might be one reason that you can’t just — if you’re starting three months before — say, “I’m going to do a past paper every day,” because you don’t have 90 past papers left.

Alex Lawsen: One thing that seems really important is actually that doing a past paper — if you’re really trying to prepare for an exam — doesn’t quite look like sitting the paper once, and then going, “Cool, I’m done. Next paper.” I think the full exercise of getting as much out of the paper as possible looks something like this: You do the paper without notes in the time that you are allowed for it in the exam. Then stop, change color — do something to notice that that’s how much you did in the time — and then try using either additional time, if you think that’s going to be enough, or additional time and notes, to answer the questions fully. So basically then cheat your way to as best as you can do on the exam, and then mark it.

Alex Lawsen: The last stage — which you could do without the “cheat your way to the finish” stage anyway — when you mark an exam yourself, it’s incredibly valuable to work out what you did wrong, why it was wrong, and why the right answer is right. And this is actually a place where just asking a teacher can be really helpful — it’s incredibly easy for teachers to give you a ton of value. If you’ve tried a question for ages and then marked it already, and found what the right answer is, and that your answer isn’t right, and you have thought about it but you don’t understand why, then going to a teacher and saying, “This is the whole process I’ve been through. Please, can you explain this one concept?” just lets you get a huge conceptual boost for very little of their time, assuming they are knowledgeable enough to know what the right answer is.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

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Book recommendations:

Other 80,000 Hours Podcast episodes:

Everything else:

Transcript

Keiran’s intro [00:00:00]

Keiran Harris: Welcome to 80k After Hours. I’m Keiran Harris — producer of the show, and true inventor of the Rubik’s Cube in 1967.

This is the second of three episodes we’re using to launch this new podcast.

In it I interview my colleague Alex Lawsen about his advice for high-school students.

We cover:

  • When half-assing something is a good idea
  • When you should actually learn things vs. just trying to seem smart
  • Why you should shift your focus over the academic year
  • Novel tips for preparing for exams
  • What to do if you struggle with motivation
  • What to do when you have bad teachers
  • And much more.

Alex spent 8 years as a high-school teacher developing the best ways to help his students, and now works as an advisor for 80,000 Hours.

This definitely won’t be for everyone — one of the benefits of this 2nd feed is that we can create content for narrower audiences.

But if you’re a student, a teacher, or a parent — it might be one of the highest value things we can offer.

One final thing — if you’ve never heard of 80,000 Hours or effective altruism and want a quick intro, just search for 80,000 Hours in your podcasting app, click on our companion feed called ‘Effective Altruism: An Introduction’, and listen to the first episode: ‘Effective Altruism in a nutshell’.

OK, here’s my conversation with Alex.

Why Alex wanted to record this episode [00:01:15]

Keiran Harris: I am here with Alex. Thanks for doing this.

Alex Lawsen: Hey, great to be here.

Keiran Harris: All right. To start off with, why did you want to record this episode?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, it’s a good question, an obvious one, and I’m not entirely sure. I was a teacher for eight years, and the last five I was in a somewhat unique situation: I was teaching at a high school in London, where everyone there was really into maths and physics, and this seems kind of unique. Also, the sorts of kids I interacted with there a lot are going to be pretty similar to some of the listeners of this podcast — maybe a little bit younger, but potentially not that much.

Alex Lawsen: And it just felt like a lot of my job actually wasn’t delivering maths or physics content — it was helping them with a bunch of stuff that they were finding difficult at the time. Over the course of almost a decade, I just ended up giving a lot of advice, and it felt like probably not all of that was completely useless. And having some record of it might be at least somewhat useful to at least some people in a similar situation.

Keiran Harris: Yeah, that sounds right to me. That’s why I agreed to do it. Okay. So what is our main goal with this episode?

Alex Lawsen: Maybe a simple version is, “Alex has a lot of thoughts in his head. Some of them might be useful. And having those thoughts not disappear — so that some people might benefit from them — seems good.”

Alex Lawsen: I don’t think I have a set of things that just everyone should listen to. It’s more that I’ve spoken to people, and they’ve had a bunch of different problems — and some of these have been fairly common, and there have been some themes that have come out. So maybe what would be a nice outcome here is that someone who’s struggling as a student — or even just interested in finding school or university a bit easier — listens to it, and hears a couple of things that they might want to try and experiment with, or get some ideas generated that seem useful to them. Something like that?

Keiran Harris: Which students would benefit most from this advice, do you think?

Alex Lawsen: I’m still not entirely convinced anyone’s going to benefit at all.

Keiran Harris: [laughs] Sure. But if anyone benefited, who would it be?

Alex Lawsen: If anyone benefited, I think they would probably be studying some sort of science or maths — that’s definitely more likely; that’s the sort of students I interact with a lot. Maybe not all of them. Maybe they’re finding school difficult in some way. Possibly they don’t have very good guidance from their current teachers.

Alex Lawsen: Maybe if you’ve been frustrated at people talking around things, or giving advice that seems very generic. Maybe those students would be more likely to find something useful. Though I think one of the reasons the advice that’s often given to students is really generic, is that… There’s this phrase that Nate Soares has, which is the law of equal and opposite advice. I don’t know if he coined it, but that’s where I heard it first. And I think the thing is, when you tell someone a very specific piece of advice, there probably exists someone for whom that advice is almost uniquely bad.

Alex Lawsen: So I’m probably going to say some stuff that has helped at least one person I’ve interacted with, but there’s almost no probability that doing all of these things is going to be correct for anyone in the world. Certainly for most people listening, it should be something like, “These are some ideas that seem like they might be plausible to try. Hopefully when I try some of them they’ll work, but I shouldn’t just take them all as gospel.”

Alex Lawsen: I think I probably haven’t completely failed to help everyone. We should be quite suspicious of that, given that I didn’t get fired from my job, and many of my students seem to like me. But if you take this as a whole bunch of ideas that you can maybe think, “Does this seem plausible?” — and if it seems plausible, try it out — then that seems about the right level of confidence to have in them.

Half-assing [00:05:14]

Keiran Harris: All right. So with all of those potentially a bit over-the-top caveats out of the way, let’s dive in. If you could give just one piece of advice to students, what would that be?

Alex Lawsen: We talked about this a little bit in the intro, but I think probably the most important thing to really do — and this is actually not super action-guiding, and maybe is one of the things that’s going to generalize more than the other stuff — is actually bother to think about what your goal is in a particular situation, and then decide how hard to shoot for that. This is hard to describe abstractly, so I’m going to try and think of some examples. Maybe some of them will be silly, but maybe some of them will point at something that seems pretty important.

Alex Lawsen: So one idea here is if you’re doing a piece of work, and you don’t think the piece of work is super valuable to anything you care about — so let’s say, you don’t think this thing is going to be super valuable to you getting better grades, or super valuable to you actually understanding something you want to understand. Then what is the goal of you doing it? If the goal of you doing it is to not get in trouble, then doing sufficiently well that you don’t get in trouble — and no better than that — seems like a good strategy.

Keiran Harris: Can you give an example of something like this, where you think a student should actually be fairly confident this has no value?

Alex Lawsen: I think maybe something to flag about the UK school system is that often people will just pick a few subjects to specialize in fairly early. If this is not the case — if you’re studying multiple subjects and you know that there are some that are just going to be the thing you’re focusing on later — then it seems at least plausible that your goal in the other subjects should just be to get the grades you need, or to pass the thing.

Alex Lawsen: Maybe the canonical example for someone in the UK would be: You’re finishing your GCSEs. You know you are going to get the highest score you can in English, and you know you’re dropping English and don’t have any other writing subjects. That seems a reasonable case to just be like, “I’m going to do what I’ve been asked to, and absolutely no more.”

Keiran Harris: That seems right.

Alex Lawsen: I think this is maybe the example that teachers will most dislike, so I should probably flag here that it seems at least possible — if your teachers are vaguely competent — that you’ve been asked to do something that you don’t see the value of, but there is actually value in. So you should be sure that that isn’t the case, before you go, “I’m going to half-ass this.” But yeah, maybe this is the one that I think is going to be most salient to bright kids who are sitting in school or something.

Alex Lawsen: To give a couple of other ones that my teacher friends might be more happy with, I’m going to quote my friend, Chana — who I was talking to about this episode, who’s also a teacher — who just said, “You cannot spend 10 minutes drawing the axes for your graphs.” And I think this points to something really important, which is if the goal in a task is to get a bunch of practice in — which I think is often a very good goal, if you’re trying to actually learn anything — then your work should be neat enough that you can do the task, and frankly, no neater. The thing you’re trying to do is learn a bunch. The thing you’re trying to do is not make your work look nice, so don’t spend any more time than you have to making it look nice.

Actually learning vs trying to seem smart [00:08:16]

Keiran Harris: Can you give another example of what kind of thing you should be optimizing for?

Alex Lawsen: Another example of one, which I think at least some teachers will be happy to hear me say, but maybe some kids will be happy because they think it applies to their classmates or something. If you’re interacting with someone — let’s say you’re interacting with a teacher or with another student — one thing you may be trying to do in a situation is actually trying to learn, and some other thing you might be trying to do in that situation is trying to seem smart.

Alex Lawsen: And I’m actually not going to make a claim about which of these things is the better thing to try to do in each situation. It’s useful to sound smart. I actually think that one thing that I am kind of good at in some situations is sounding smart. And maybe I caveat too much to try and compensate for this. I think probably what happens is me just being able to caveat really heavily the things I’m saying — but then still saying them — actually doesn’t help with the “sounding smart” thing at all.

Alex Lawsen: I think it’s valuable for people to think you are worth spending time on, so maybe in some situations you should try and sound smart. But I think it can also be really harmful, because one of the most valuable things to help you progress your own learning is to actually notice when you’re uncertain about something, and ask for clarification immediately. It’s just way easier to have someone who already knows the thing tell you.

Alex Lawsen: If you’ve got two models — two explanations for a question, or two things that might be an interpretation of what someone just said — sometimes it’s just going to be really hard to work out which one’s true on your own. You can just ask them, and then you just get the answer instantly and you don’t have to do all that mental labor — and then you could bother working out what that piece of information is useful for.

Alex Lawsen: This is a really clear example where, if you’re in a situation where you’re trying to learn, I claim you should not care at all about sounding smart, and you should be prepared to ask pretty stupid-sounding questions. And you should be prepared to look stupid occasionally, because you asked something that was very obvious to everyone else in the situation. But actually — especially if it was very obvious to everyone else in the situation — it seems really important that you know that quickly, so you can then access all of the other stuff.

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think this is the best example, because it doesn’t seem super extreme, and it seems plausible that lots of people are trying to do at least some of both of these things in lots of situations. Basically you should actually think, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this thing?” And then say, “Okay, if the reason I’m doing this thing is X, then how can I do this thing in a way to maximize X?”

Shifting your focus over the academic year [00:10:43]

Keiran Harris: Is there a situation where you do have a claim of the kind of thing people should be optimizing for?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think so. One thing that I have tried to do in my teaching — and I think that students should be trying to do in their learning — is as an academic year progresses, changing the focus. My rough claim is something like, at the start of the year, you are pretty far away from any exams, and your focus should be — as much as possible — actually try to learn the subject, actually try to just get good and understand the subject.

Alex Lawsen: Then as you get further towards your endpoint, as you get closer to an exam, I think that becomes less important or maybe less tractable or something, and you should start being much more specific and going, “Okay, I have an exam. How do I pass the exam?” And learning the subject and passing exams are correlated, but you can do somewhat different things to try to actually achieve those goals.

Keiran Harris: When you say, “as you get closer to your exam,” do you have a rough estimate of how long that should be? Are you saying a month before the exams come up? Longer?

Alex Lawsen: I think I picture this as somewhat continuous, but as a rough guide in my teaching… In England, we have three terms, and I approximately spent the first two terms introducing new material and trying to convince the students that they should actually try and understand that material, and then approximately the third term going, “You have heard at least once all of the material. Let’s try and work out how you are going to reproduce that in an exam, get ready for that.” So approximately two-to-one across the year, but I envisage it slightly more continuous than that.

Actually trying to learn a subject [00:12:28]

Keiran Harris: All right, great. Can we explore what it actually means to be trying to learn a subject?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, sure. I think maybe it’s easiest to talk about what this doesn’t look like. Something that frustrated me when I was teaching sometimes — in that it didn’t look very like this, it didn’t look very helpful — was people going like, “Sure, you’ve told me this idea, but what do I need to know for the exam?” And I’m speaking specifically about maths and physics here — because these are the subjects I ended up specializing in — but they both have many connections between them. I claim that trying to see the big picture — and trying to work out where the current thing you’re learning fits into the big picture, and how it connects to other stuff — is very valuable for gaining actual, deep understanding of the subject.

Alex Lawsen: If, whenever you get a new piece of information, the reaction to it is, “How do I package this to be able to reproduce it in a certain format later?” then you don’t try as hard to make those connections. You don’t try as hard to actually grok the thing. And this feels like a fairly severe mistake unless you are under some time pressure — i.e. unless there is an exam around the corner.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. I imagine for a lot of students, this is just ingrained, that they’re trying to learn things for the exams. So even if this sounds good, do you have tips on how to actually achieve this mindset shift?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, that’s a great question. Maybe something to do is try and work out what it would look like to be doing this well. I think there’s a few things I can point out here.
One thing is actually trying to look for these connections — so trying to ask the question yourself, “Why is this valuable?” But not why is this valuable as in “because I can use it in an exam” — but “Why did someone bother to invent this thing? Why does it matter?”

Alex Lawsen: Another thing is, “Can I explain this concept to someone else?” You could literally do this, and I actually really strongly recommend this. I think one of the best ways of improving your knowledge of a thing is trying to teach other people that thing, because they ask you questions — annoying, basic questions sometimes — about why: “Why do you do it that way? Why does that thing work? Why does that step come after that one?” And you have to come up with an answer, especially if you are better than them in some sense. There’s no option to be like, “Oh, I actually don’t know,” because then the response is, “Well, why are you explaining this then?”

Alex Lawsen: So yeah, if you have someone that you feel able to help, who’s a bit worse than you, then explaining it to them seems great. If you have some friends who are studying the same stuff, then trying to explain stuff to each other, and check that you all get it. And trying to argue with each other about whether you understand the things in the right way seems good. And failing both of those, imagining a younger version of you, and seeing what you would say to them, including a much younger version. You can be like, let’s say you are 18. “How would I explain this to a 15-year-old? How would I explain this to a 10-year-old? Is there anything meaningful I could explain to a five-year-old about this?” The ages are arbitrary, right? But “Can I explain this at multiple levels of simplicity?” seems a good way of checking whether you’ve actually got it.

Keiran Harris: Yeah, that’s great. How helpful do you think it would be to try and convince at least a few of your friends in the same class to have the same attitude, so you’re actually going through it together? So you have a group of at least three or four people who have this mindset of actually wanting to learn the thing, and being able to bounce ideas off each other, versus just being, “Okay, I’m the only one in my class who’s really taking this more expansive attitude.”

Alex Lawsen: With the caveat that I haven’t looked at any educational research for seven years or something, I feel pretty confident that this is one of the best things you could do. I really think that having a group of peers who are actually trying to learn, and learn with you, just seems incredibly valuable from many different perspectives.

Alex Lawsen: Some people really struggle with motivation, even when they think the thing they’re trying to motivate themselves to do is important. I’m one of those people — I find it much easier to motivate myself to help someone else than to actually help myself.

Alex Lawsen: But then also — all of these things about discussing ideas and trying to explain to each other — but also your friends are going to have interesting questions and interesting insights that you won’t generate. If you’re approximately the same level of intelligence as them, and there’s five of them, you shouldn’t expect to be generating the same insights as all five of them at the same time. It just seems there’s a whole bunch of advantages here. And I’ve seen this work really, really well in the past, where a few students have just all got really into this thing at the same time, and then the rate at which they’re learning that thing just seems to grow pretty rapidly.

Prepping for exams [00:16:55]

Keiran Harris: Great. So let’s say, the people who have succeeded so far, the first two-thirds of the year, they’re in this learning mode. Now they have to shift towards caring about the exams. What does that shift look like?

Alex Lawsen: Cool, let’s start with the obvious stuff. You are going to go and sit in a room and be tested on your knowledge of a bunch of material by having to answer questions that you haven’t seen before, without any notes in front of you. So to first approximation, the thing you should do to prepare for that is be in a room without any notes, and have some questions in front of you that you haven’t seen before, and try to answer them to the best of your ability.

Alex Lawsen: And kind of nothing else matters. And I said “kind of,” and I do actually want to dig into some things you can do that aren’t exactly that — because that can be stressful, and certainly you shouldn’t do it all the time and at the start, unless you’re just incredibly resilient and have an arbitrarily large stack of past papers.

Alex Lawsen: But if you’re spending the majority of your time doing anything other than something that looks very like the thing you’re preparing for, you should have a very good reason for that. Because actually if you want to get better at a thing, you should do something that looks extremely like that thing.

Keiran Harris: Okay, so you said that you shouldn’t just be practicing exam papers. Why not?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, so one reason might be that you just don’t have that many. Let’s say you are preparing for an A Level maths paper. In this case, you are relatively lucky, because A Level maths has existed for a long time, and the format hasn’t changed that much. So you can probably find a bunch of papers that look at least somewhat like the paper you are going to be sitting, or a past year’s version of the paper you’re going to be sitting, and you can just try a bunch of those. And then leave the ones that look most like the thing that you are preparing for towards near the end.

Alex Lawsen: It may be though, that your exam looks different to previous years. Maybe the syllabus has recently changed. That might be one reason that you can’t just — if you’re starting three months before — say, “I’m going to do a past paper every day,” because you don’t have 90 past papers left.

Keiran Harris: That makes sense. What would you do instead?

Alex Lawsen: I guess maybe the reason I have defaulted to saying “do papers” is because they’re just a source of questions that are at the right level for you, and testing the things that you need to be able to do. So can you find other sources of questions that are about the right level for you, and test roughly the things you need to do? So like asking your teacher for any good sources, or if you have a textbook for the course — or even if one of your friends has a textbook for a slightly different course — textbooks have big sections of questions at the back.

Alex Lawsen: Then there’s one thing that you can do — which is a bit more involved, and could be fun to do with a group of friends who are working towards the same thing — is trying to write your own questions. I actually find this pretty valuable in terms of a fairly late-stage thing — it’s something you’d want to do once you already kind of have a sense of what’s going on. But if you can work out what sort of knowledge needs to be tested, and how you would actually go about testing it, and create your own question that’s testing a thing that you think you actually need to know — this really just displays a level of mastery that should leave you feeling fairly confident that you can answer questions of a similar form.

Alex Lawsen: I guess there’s something else here, which is if you think that the questions you’re writing are pretty realistic — and maybe your friends do too, or your teachers give you good feedback on a couple of them — this is a good sense that you’ve just kind of got the sense of what the exam game is, and a sense of how to play it. So writing your own questions can be pretty good.

Alex Lawsen: Other things that are a bit less in this vein of, “Just try to get questions that seem pretty accurate” are that you should be doing Anki review — and if things come out of that, then going and looking at specific things.

Alex Lawsen: Something related as well is it is actually worth just finding a copy of the syllabus for the exam that you’re going to be taking, and actually just reading through it and going like, “Do I actually understand what’s being referred to here for all of the different things I’m supposed to have learned?” And if you’re not sure how to write a question on some topic that apparently you’ve learned, then this is a fairly good sign to ask one of your friends or ask a teacher, “What do I need to know about this? I don’t think I’ve really got it. I don’t really know what this is referring to.” It might be the case that actually this is referring to something you already understand. Or it might be that you just found an important gap in your knowledge, and it’s going to be really useful to try and plug that.

Alex Lawsen: So overall, if you can’t find exam papers full of questions, just try to find other good sources of questions that are about the right level, then a couple of other things to do once you’ve run out of questions, or if you need a break or something like that.

Keiran Harris: How would you make the most of the papers you do have?

Alex Lawsen: One thing that seems really important is actually that doing a past paper — if you’re really trying to prepare for an exam — doesn’t quite look like sitting the paper once, and then going, “Cool, I’m done. Next paper.” I think the full exercise of getting as much out of the paper as possible looks something like this: You do the paper without notes in the time that you are allowed for it in the exam. Then stop, change color — do something to notice that that’s how much you did in the time — and then try using either additional time, if you think that’s going to be enough, or additional time and notes, to answer the questions fully. So basically then cheat your way to as best as you can do on the exam, and then mark it.

Alex Lawsen: The last stage — which you could do without the “cheat your way to the finish” stage anyway — when you mark an exam yourself, it’s incredibly valuable to work out what you did wrong, why it was wrong, and why the right answer is right. And this is actually a place where just asking a teacher can be really helpful — it’s incredibly easy for teachers to give you a ton of value. If you’ve tried a question for ages and then marked it already, and found what the right answer is, and that your answer isn’t right, and you have thought about it but you don’t understand why, then going to a teacher and saying, “This is the whole process I’ve been through. Please, can you explain this one concept?” just lets you get a huge conceptual boost for very little of their time, assuming they are knowledgeable enough to know what the right answer is.

Keiran Harris: So these are all examples of good exam preparation. What does bad exam prep look like?

Alex Lawsen: One thing that I see as something of a failure mode is doing things that feel productive but aren’t that hard. And we should probably talk later about how sometimes that’s all you are able to do because you’re really stressed — and in that case, doing something is way better than doing nothing. So this is one place where the law of equal and opposite advice bites really, really hard. I am somewhat concerned about someone hearing what I’m going to say, and then feeling really stressed the night before an exam, and trying to do a whole other paper because Alex said that doing papers is the best thing, and anything else is useless.

Alex Lawsen: Because “anything else” is not useless. But if you have the capacity to do something kind of hard in preparation — like if you have the capacity to try to recall stuff from scratch — then reading over your textbook, or reading over your notes, or making newer prettier notes, these things feel nice, but just aren’t going to help you that much. Because they just don’t look very much like trying to recall information under a high-pressure situation. So I think reading notes, reading textbooks, feels productive. You look at the thing and you go, “Ah, I know the thing because I just read it.” And it just doesn’t help very much.

Keiran Harris: Yeah, that makes sense. Is there anything else that people should be looking out for? And mistakes that they might be making in trying to prepare for exams?

Alex Lawsen: It’s maybe worth dwelling on what the opposite of this “fully using a paper” is, and that’s: Sat the paper, got 75%. Great. I’m going to sit another paper. Got 75%, great. Sit another paper, got 75%.

Alex Lawsen: You’ve got to have some model for how you’re improving. The hard questions are always going to be kind of hard. So, “I’m going to try to do the easy questions, as fast and accurately as possible, so I have maximal time to think about the hard questions.” Or it could be, “I’m going to really dig into all of my mistakes, and ask a teacher or ask a friend, or just think with myself or the textbook afterwards, about why I got those wrong.”

Alex Lawsen: But you do want something more than, “I’m going to do the thing, see how well I did, and then just — without any reflection on what I can improve next time — do the next thing,” because some quote that gets misattributed to Einstein about doing the same thing over and over again, or something like that.

Keiran Harris: Sure. So when you’re correcting your work, what does it look like to actually get the maximum value from that?

Alex Lawsen: I think one thing you could use here — and I wanted to talk to you about it at some point, because I stole it from poker, and this is a shared background we have — I wrote on students’ work a lot, this four-letter acronym, D-U-C-Y, and then a question mark. The first thing about this acronym is, what does it stand for? And after you’ve looked at it for a while, you can work out that it stands for “Do you see why?” And at this point I get a large eye roll from most of my students, because I’ll say it stands for “Do you see why? Do you see why?”

Alex Lawsen: And why do I think this is valuable? Other than just, I don’t know, winding students up is fun sometimes? Maybe I’ll explain when I used it in a marking context, and then maybe this gestures at why I think it could be really useful for people to internalize on their own.

Keiran Harris: Sounds good.

Alex Lawsen: Often when marking work, I saw someone had made a mistake. And maybe this was a conceptual mistake — so their approach was never going to work to get the right answer, or there was something they’d fundamentally missed — but basically I thought they knew enough to realize that, if they bothered to look at the question.

Alex Lawsen: So sometimes what I would do is almost the canonical example of bad marking practice or something, where I wouldn’t give any feedback at all. I wouldn’t explain anything they’d done wrong. I’d just put a cross and write “DUCY?” And I did flag this to my classes that, “What I mean by this is I think you are smart enough to see why, so look at it and work out whether you do.”

Keiran Harris: Did students respond to that? Were they more annoyed or were they more thankful for this?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think at least some of them bought into the idea pretty hard, and what tended to convince the ones that were convinced was when I did this and they looked at the thing and they went, “Oh, I see why,” and then it felt like they could buy into the joke. And I do actually think this is really valuable, the prompt of, “You got this wrong. You’re smart enough to work out why you got it wrong. You don’t need to go and look stuff up in your notes, and you don’t need to ask a friend. You can just look at it and go, ‘Why did my approach not work?’ And then actually find the answer.” And that can be really powerful. Much better than trying a slightly different question, and getting that one right, actually.

Alex Lawsen: I guess that’s the thing that I was trying to gesture at when I did this in class. So my claim here is if you’re making corrections, try to imagine that I’ve got your paper and written crosses next to all the things you got wrong, and then just written “DUCY?” next to each of them maybe could be useful.

Keiran Harris: This seems pretty related to the idea of doing the hard thing, rather than just being, “Okay, I’ve got this answer wrong. I’m just going to immediately get the answer.” You’re actually asking students to engage.

Alex Lawsen: I think that’s right, and maybe this is actually another case where knowing what you’re optimizing for is important, because if you’ve done 50 versions of the question before, and in this one, you just wrote a plus sign that was slightly slanted, and then you multiplied two numbers together — it is not in fact useful to really try and interrogate why your handwriting was slightly slanted in that question.

“Stupid” mistakes [00:28:01]

Alex Lawsen: There is a category of mistakes, which is, “I had a brain fart. I don’t often do this. I instantly know when looking at it what the correct thing to do was. This was a fumble or a slip.” And you’ll notice — or many of you students listening to this, if any eventually do — will notice that what I’m not saying here is this was a stupid mistake.

Alex Lawsen: And actually this is something I want to bang on about for a second, because I think that if the majority of the mistakes you’re making are of this form, like, “I actually understand what’s going on here, but I just wrote the wrong thing or my brain did the wrong thing,” then this is pretty strong evidence that you’re not stupid. This is pretty strong evidence that you actually understand the material.

Alex Lawsen: So I call them “technical mistakes” — make up your own word if you need to — but the thing here is if you see that kind of mistake, then the answer is, “Okay, that’s that category of mistake,” not like, “Why did I do it?” But if it feels you were doing completely the wrong thing, then trying to work out why it was wrong seems pretty valuable.

Keiran Harris: How often, when students get this back, is it just going to be this very straightforward multiplication sign where it should have been a plus sign? How often is it going to be this much deeper?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, good question. I think it varies pretty heavily depending on the student. And I think it seems very valuable for students to try and work out in different situations they’re experiencing, what kind of mistakes are more usual for them.

Alex Lawsen: I typically used DUCY in my teaching for more conceptual stuff, which is “Your approach was actually never going to work, and I think you can work out why.” That was the sort of thing I would use it for. And that’s basically because if I’m bothering to mark a piece of work for a student, it seems kind of mean — or not that good of a use of time — for me to be like, “Find all the technical mistakes here.” There are some students who just get everything conceptually and are really, really sloppy — and for them, I might actually make them find all the technical mistakes or whatever. But yeah, mostly if I see someone’s written a plus sign instead of a minus sign, I can just write over that.

Alex Lawsen: Having said that, it is pretty valuable to put a bunch of effort into finding your own technical mistakes. Because I happen to know that the most common one I made throughout my whole education career was that I would just cross minus signs because that’s how you write a plus, right? You write the minus bit and then you cross it. I also do this with Ls. I cross my Ls because that’s how you write a T and then I’m like, “Fuck. That was an L. Why has it got a cross?” And this is mostly fine, but occasionally I cross it and I’m thinking about something else, so don’t realize it. And then it’s a plus, and this is actually not the same action as subtraction. So that goes badly.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. It does seem like all this takes way more time than just doing a practice paper. So is there a point at which you’d stop?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think we’re coming back to the same theme here — but maybe this is good and shows my thinking is consistent. The closer you get to the exam, the more exam-like it should be. So if you’re a few days before, maybe just doing a paper and marking it quickly, and if there’s something you think is a huge deal, then digging into it. But otherwise just going, “Okay, I think I basically get what’s going on. I’m going to do another paper.” Or even “I’ve got this question completely wrong. And I just have no idea — if that question comes up, I guess I’m just screwed at this point.”

Alex Lawsen: Sometimes you’ve got to cut your losses. And this is actually maybe about the “choose what you’re optimizing for” thing. It might be — and I hope it isn’t, but it was for me in some of my university exams — that there’s a point at which you’re just like, “I am not going to get this thing and I have two days left. It’s better for me to make sure I’m able to do the things that I know I have some chance of getting.” Or even, “It’s better for me to get enough sleep and get some rest.” That one actually seems important.

Alex Lawsen: So I think there’s a “cut your losses” thing going on, and one way you can cut your losses actually is just be like, “Looks like I screwed that question up. Got two days left. More worthwhile doing another paper than spending 90 minutes trying to work out what went wrong.”

Prepping for stress [00:31:43]

Keiran Harris: Yeah. How much of this exam prep is designed to ensure that you feel better psychologically within the actual exam? So rather than actually learning the material, being able to just handle the stress of like, “This is a question I wasn’t anticipating”? Or if you find yourself getting more questions wrong than you’d think, being able to calm down and think as clearly as you’re saying, to just be like, “Maybe we’re just not going to get this one,” and not actually panic?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. I think it’s somewhat difficult to tell. My guess is it’s going to vary a lot based on students. But I think I could have done with a pretty heavy focus on exactly that, when I was at uni especially. I had a couple of minor breakdowns in some of my uni exams, where they just didn’t look like the papers I’d been doing. And I spent way too long going like, “Oh, I’m going to fail. I’m going to fail. I’m going to fail. This seems terrible. I’m going to fail. That seems bad.”

Alex Lawsen: Having practiced doing enough papers, that the ideal scenario for exam stress is that you’re just like, “I’ve just done this so many times I’m bored of it.” And actually I think that in this case, maybe boredom is kind of good. It’s just like, “I’m just going to do another paper. I’ve done so many of these papers.”

Alex Lawsen: There’s some things in this vein that I’ve tried with students on occasion. And this is like my own idea and kind of risky, so extra flag for I don’t actually know what I’m talking about here. But a couple of my students struggled with exam stress pretty badly, and told me about it early enough in the year that it felt worth experimenting with some things — I would not have experimented with these things if it was like a week to go for the exams.

Alex Lawsen: One thing I suggested they might try is artificially adding stressors to some of the practice they were doing. This can take a few forms. It could be just giving themselves half the time that they could actually have in the real exam, and just seeing how much of the paper they could do. Or for some of them who are particularly sensitive to noise, doing a past paper in the cafeteria, rather than in a quiet room.

Alex Lawsen: Or in one case — triple flag now: this is so dependent on the student, and I think there’s a whole bunch of people this would be terrible for, and possibly I’m one of them — but I encouraged the student to spend a couple of minutes before the paper thinking about what would happen if they tanked the exam, getting somewhat stressed. And then sitting it and just basically practicing, “Can I still do maths when I’m feeling really stressed?” And the goal here was that they walk into the exam and they’re like, “I’m stressed. I can do maths when I’m stressed. I’ve done this a bunch of times.” And for that student, it went really well.

Alex Lawsen: I think maybe this comes back to the thing you were asking me before. I do have this somewhat unjustified belief that if you find something difficult, putting yourself in the situation where you have to try and do that difficult thing — and just trying to do it — is going to make you better. And I guess this goes wrong if the thing is too hard — it needs to be at the right difficulty level. I actually think this is what really good teachers can help with: giving you things that are difficult enough that they’re making you improve, but not so difficult that you crash and burn. If you are able to manipulate the difficulty of stuff you’re doing, such that it feels challenging but not overwhelming, I think people should be quite ambitious with trying to do that.

Keiran Harris: I thought you were going in a different direction when you were asking the student to imagine what would happen if they tanked this. I thought you were going to say, “Imagine what will happen if you tanked this. It will be okay. What’s the worst-case scenario? You’ll be totally fine. No one’s going to die.” You know, this sort of thing, like, “It’s just school. This isn’t actually going to determine the rest of your life.” What do you think about that kind of thing? Like actually trying to put this in some sort of perspective, so trying to lower the stakes?

Alex Lawsen: I think that is going to be really helpful in many cases for dealing with the stress, maybe at a different time. I have said similar things to students. Actually, a friend of mine helped me with this the day before yesterday. Where like, I was just in a completely kind of mad panic about how I thought I’d done this thing and I might have made someone really upset. And I didn’t have very strong evidence that I had. In fact, I had pretty strong evidence that I hadn’t, but it seemed possible, and I was feeling really terrible about it.

Alex Lawsen: And what she said was, “How bad would it be?” She was like, “Actually, let’s just imagine the worst-case scenario. It doesn’t seem very likely, it seems like you don’t think it’s very likely, but actually if you’ve made this person feel a bit sad, do you think they would endorse how bad you’re feeling? Do you think they would think that you should be beating yourself up for multiple hours about how you’d made them feel?” And I was like, “I guess… no. I don’t think anyone else should feel this bad.” I think there is this thing where confronting the worst case can make it seem more okay or something.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. I’d be curious, because my instincts, if I was talking to students — and I have absolutely no experience here — but I would be very much emphasizing, “Look, this is nowhere near as big a deal as you think it is.” But of course there’s the risk that if I was giving them that advice, then maybe they don’t apply themselves as much because I’m saying like, “Look, it’ll all be fine anyway.” How do you think about getting this balance right?

Alex Lawsen: I actually think that’s basically true, and I actually really appreciate it. Maybe this situation is really specific, where I basically think the student already knew that. This particular student was pretty sure that they didn’t endorse the level of stress that they felt. They didn’t in general feel stressed about their results, and they just had experienced this phenomenon of getting into an exam and then suddenly feeling really stressed.

Alex Lawsen: And honestly, I think the best thing to do in this situation is seek support from a mental health professional, which is not me. For many people this would be the right thing, but not everyone, for various reasons. In the case of students, some of these reasons are actually just family pressure or views on mental health stuff. I basically think that getting support with stuff like that seems really important, and I’m actually not the right person to give it because I’m not qualified.

Alex Lawsen: And maybe actually this is why, in terms of the advice we’ve ended up talking about, I’ve ended up talking about this really specific situation, where I basically thought, “This is a wash.” This is also a kind of extreme example of me thinking that you can try really hard to get better at a thing, even if that thing seemed like not something that most people would try and get better at. Yeah, the highest-level take is that you should probably just seek support from a mental health professional. I think people feeling stressed about work is almost always bad.

Alex Lawsen: I actually have some weakly held hypothesis that kids feeling too laid-back is not really a thing. Someone not trying and not getting work done — I’d be much more worried about, “Is that person okay? Is the reason that they’re unable to motivate themselves that they’re feeling bad, or they’re having difficulty with something that they haven’t flagged?” I feel like “not enough stress” is an easy thing to point to and go like, “Maybe if they felt a bit more stressed, they’d be able to force themselves to do stuff.” I’d much rather they didn’t have to force themselves to do stuff.

Keiran Harris: That sounds exactly right to me.

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. So I really strongly don’t endorse “ride the stress,” and I’ll tell you how to do well when stressed in exams. But there are some people who are just going to find some situations stressful — and if you are one of those people, practicing the stressful situation in a safe environment seems reasonable.

Alex Lawsen: Maybe there’s a better example of this. I was helping one of my former students — who is now studying natural sciences at Cambridge — to prepare for the admissions interviews. This student was extremely good at maths and physics, which is what you need to be to get into natural sciences at Cambridge. And so I did a mock interview with them, where I asked them some maths questions and some physics questions, and they answered them fine. It transpired that they were super nervous about the interview, but not because of that — they were super nervous about the interview because this student also found social interaction just pretty hard.

Alex Lawsen: So we did a couple of interviews with them, not with me — with another teacher — where they practiced coming in and shaking hands, and sitting down and answering things like, “How are you? How was your journey?” — the sort of questions you get asked at the start of the interview, which are designed to help you calm down so that you can get on with doing some maths or whatever.

Alex Lawsen: And so I think this is another example of how you shouldn’t feel stressed in social situations, but some people do. And so practicing the stressful social situation in a place where you know it’s safe — and if you make a mistake, nothing bad’s going to happen — can make it feel better, or at least when you are feeling bad in the moment, you know that this is a thing you’ve done before.

Struggling with motivation [00:40:24]

Keiran Harris: Yep. Definitely. All right, so moving on a bit, obviously for a lot or even most students, it’d be really tough to stay motivated throughout the entire school year. What would you say to students who really struggle with motivation?

Alex Lawsen: I have spoken to students who struggle with motivation a lot, so I’m going to try and work out what I said to some of them. Maybe the thing to flag is that there are many reasons to struggle with motivation — the things to say, and the things for students listening to this to try, will somewhat depend on the thing that’s going on.

Alex Lawsen: So maybe a useful place to start is like, is their motivation coming from feeling overworked, or stressed, or burnt out, or something like that? This was probably the most common thing for students I taught. The school was pretty high performing — it got very good exam results — and lots of the students there were working very hard, and all of their friends were also working very hard. So this is an environment where there’s an expectation to do lots of work, and this can feel overwhelming.

Alex Lawsen: In this case, you’re just like, “I have to be working. Everyone else is working.” This seems really overwhelming. This can lead to just being like, “I don’t want to do any work at all.” And I think one really valuable thing to do in this case, and maybe some of the most value I ever gave to students, was I explicitly gave them permission to rest, or to switch off, or to not be productive. I literally mean I said the words: “I give you permission to rest if you are not doing useful stuff.”

Alex Lawsen: I actually think maybe this is useful to do now. So if you’re listening to this, and you’re feeling like there’s too much work on, you have permission — for whatever it means — to actually stop. And maybe the way to phrase this — that feels most allowable for someone who’s in the mindset of “I must work because it’s really important that I work” — is that it seems pretty true to say something like, “You should do as much as you can and no more.” And the key thing about this is “as much as you can” is sometimes zero.

Alex Lawsen: If in fact you are not being useful — and when we say “not being useful,” we mean not being useful on net, so it might be you’re working at like 2% capacity — because you’re really stressed, and also costing yourself the ability to work in the future, because you’re making yourself even more stressed, and more tired, and more burnt out — then doing nothing is the most you can do. And in those scenarios, actually doing nothing and saying, “I am going to stop; I need to rest” is the best thing you can do. And so you should actually do it.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. That just sounds like obviously great advice. I can imagine that being really hard to actually follow through with. Beyond listening to this podcast and hearing you say, “I give you permission” — which is hopefully helpful — do you have any other tips for how to actually make this feel okay?

Alex Lawsen: I think there’s something I can point at, which is the case where you have pretty strong evidence you should be resting, and maybe that will help. The thing I’m thinking of here is like a state that, if I describe it — even though I probably won’t do a great job of describing it — I think people who’ve been in this state will recognize what I’m talking about very quickly. This is the state of like kind of working and kind of resting, and feeling bad about both. And so this could look like having books open and staring into space. It could look like scrolling on your phone, or watching TV, or messaging your friends in between answering questions. But the “skew of time” is mostly the relaxing thing — most of your time is spent doing the relaxing thing, and then sometimes you’re doing the work thing.

Alex Lawsen: And actually what’s going on here is the relaxing part of whatever you are doing isn’t relaxing you — because the relaxing part is just making you feel bad about not working, but you’re also not doing any useful work. And if you feel like you’re in this state — where you are not really doing work that’s that useful, and you are also not really relaxing — the claim I want to make is that it is strictly better to be actually relaxing. Because if you are actually relaxing, you will have the capacity to work in the future, whereas if you stay in this state forever, you will never recover enough to get out of it.

Keiran Harris: Yep. That definitely sounds right. In our preparation for this episode, you mentioned that you had a specific strategy that you sometimes introduced in revision terms. Do you want to outline that?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, so this is something that I introduced for a particular student, and it worked quite well for them, and I tried it with a few others. These were usually students who had this thing of feeling really bad about not working hard enough, at least some of the time — whether they ended up a lot in this like not-quite-working and not-quite-relaxing state, or whether they just were feeling more bad generally, or whether they had other things going on that made working really hard (like other stresses at home or in their life).

Alex Lawsen: There’s some class of students for whom always doing the really hard thing we were talking about before — trying to do a paper and then really digging into what went wrong — is just not possible a lot of the time. So we would together find a ranked list or create a ranked list of revision techniques — so things to do, tasks to do — such that the list increased monotonically (to use a maths word) in difficulty and usefulness as we went up the list.

Alex Lawsen: Maybe the first thing to flag here is, DUCY it should increase in both difficulty and usefulness? So if you get a task that is more difficult and less useful, why is it on the list? And if you have a task that is more useful and less difficult, why is the other task on the list? You’ve just flipped the order. But yes, you rank these tasks. Maybe let’s give a couple of examples.

Alex Lawsen: Doing the full thing of a paper that we talked about before feels like it’s pretty close to the top of this list: it’s really difficult, it takes a lot of energy. You have to be feeling okay before you start, because it’s going to be kind of stressful. And also it’s really useful if you are able to do it. I think the key thing is that this usefulness is conditional on you feeling well enough to do the thing. Maybe all the way down at the bottom is like watching a video on some nice maths, or reading a textbook, or reading over your notes.

Alex Lawsen: I flagged earlier that if all you are doing is this, the exam’s probably not going to go very well. But if sometimes this is all you have the energy to do, it is better than nothing — and doing the most you can and no more than that involves doing that thing. And actually doing this thing and knowing that “this is the most I can do right now” may feel better than doing nothing. If it doesn’t feel better than doing nothing, it is not easier and more useful than doing nothing, so you should just do nothing.

Alex Lawsen: In some cases, the lowest thing on the list was “do nothing.” In many cases for my students, the lowest thing on the list was like, watch a video by 3Blue1Brown, the YouTube channel. Which we will put a link in, because he’s my favorite educational YouTuber — there’s just a very long distance between him and everyone else who’s trying to do educational YouTube stuff, and like loads of my students were massive fans.

Keiran Harris: So once you have this list in front of you, what does it look like to actually go through it? Are you trying to just anticipate what’s the hardest thing you could do? Or are you actually trying to do the hardest thing and then dropping back? What does it actually look like to go through this?

Alex Lawsen: So the students I helped tended on the whole to have a pretty good sense of how they were feeling. Often how they were feeling was pretty bad, but they were able to tell how well they were doing. If this is you — if you are often struggling and feeling kind of bad, but you know roughly how bad you are feeling, and this is an easy emotion to access — then the thing to do is before you start working, go like, “How am I feeling? What do I feel able to do?” And do the hardest thing that you feel confidently able to do. For students who had a pretty poor grasp on that, I probably just wouldn’t suggest this thing at all, to be honest, because it seems pretty costly to make a mistake.

Alex Lawsen: Then the sort of thing you might do is, if you have an hour blocked out to do some revision, or if you have like two hours blocked out to do some revision, do like 10 minutes of one of the things and then stop and go like, “Do I feel better or worse?” If you feel better because you’re being productive and it’s not too stressful, then carry on with that. Or if you feel loads better or more energized, go up one level. And then similarly, if after a few minutes you’re like, “Ugh,” then going down a level seems good, or several levels depending on how bad you’re feeling, or stopping. It’s come back to this — stopping is actually really useful here.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. Did you have more to say on this?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. Maybe the thing to do is give a success criterion for this switching off. So we talked about what might be a strong signal that you should actually stop. I claim it looks something like I’m kind of working and I’m kind of not working and I’m feeling bad about both of these things. I think one test of “Are you relaxing well?” is: do you start feeling better? It sounds obvious, but there’s a lot of things you could do to relax, and this will vary based on the person. And any generic mental health website that says really annoying stuff — like, “Don’t actually get therapy or have medicine, just try this random thing” — often the lists of random things are not terrible to try as a relaxation strategy, but they’re absolutely not a substitute for actually getting help if you have a condition.

Alex Lawsen: But yeah, so going for a walk, going outside, talking to a friend, watching a favorite TV show, reading a book — something you like doing that will reliably make you feel better. And I think the key thing is to check in with yourself after a while, and go like, “Am I feeling any better?” If not, switch activity. Yeah, it’s worth flagging that if you are not feeling better, that’s okay. You haven’t failed at relaxing. You don’t need to then start feeling bad. But it seems worth testing a bunch of things here, and if you notice there’s a thing that kind of makes you feel okay. A lot of my students have pets. I said, “Go hang out with your pets. Pet them, literally.” This is nice; animals are nice.

Keiran Harris: Maybe one thing you could do here is just keep a record of the things that actually work, so the next time you’re in this situation, you can go back to this and be like, “Oh, I remember the thing that worked really well a month ago, when I was having a bad day. Let’s do that again.”

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. That sounds great.

Bursts of inspiration [00:50:42]

Keiran Harris: What if you find you’re someone who has occasional bursts of motivation, but then go back to your default of being kind of unmotivated? What’s the best thing you can do if you’re in one of these high-energy periods?

Alex Lawsen: Ah, yeah. I love this idea and I don’t think it’s mine. I have a really specific thing, and maybe the reason I like this so much is that this applies to me pretty strongly. I have very unstable motivation. And whoever I stole this from had a different word for motivation and this thing, and I think they used “inspiration” and “motivation” or something. So the thing is, I get periods where I feel really inspired and I have lots of energy and I have the ability to do lots of stuff. Maybe a motivated person is someone who’s just able to do useful things a lot, like pretty consistently. And so under this framework, does it make sense to say your question is, what should you do with inspiration?

Keiran Harris: Yeah. Yeah, so if you can obviously recognize that you’re in one of these moments of motivation or inspiration, what are the best things to do in this period? Should you be — if we go back to our example of preparing for exams — is this a moment that you should just be doing a bunch of practice exams, or is it a moment you should be thinking about setting up processes to try and improve your overall habits? What should you be doing when you’re in this motivated moment?

Alex Lawsen: I think you’ve anticipated the answer to some extent. I think a thing to do — which is a pretty bad idea for a lot of people a lot of the time — is the thing that’s going to be on your to-do list for a while. And just doing loads of it and doing as much as you can. In the case of this student revising, it would be like, “I’ll do loads of past papers because I’m feeling really inspired.” And the problem with this is that when you stop feeling inspired, what do you do then? Because you’ve kind of used up all of your inspiration, potentially used it up more quickly than other things would do. And then you’re like, “Oh no, now I don’t have any more inspiration. Guess I’ve got to do nothing.”

Alex Lawsen: So the idea that I stole from someone — which seems really important here — is what you do is you set yourself up such that it is as easy as possible to do the hard things when you are no longer feeling inspired. And there’s a whole bunch of things this could look like. Maybe one thing is, for some people, writing yourself a schedule. For what it’s worth, for many other people, writing yourself a schedule just immediately fails when you lose the inspiration, because the schedule was overambitious and you fail to do the first thing on it. And then you’re like, “Well, I guess this schedule is useless.”

Keiran Harris: Yeah. Should you be thinking about writing a schedule that it’s like, “If I’m in this frame of mind, this is my schedule. If I have medium motivation, this is my schedule.” Should you actually be thinking about anticipating your mindsets?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think that could work. I think other things that could work are just removing all of the barriers to doing the things, other than actually doing the thing. This could be: if you’re going to do a bunch of papers, go select the papers, print them out, get yourself a nice stack of them ready, silly things like that. And know where you are going to work. If you have a quiet space at home, great. You’re super lucky. Make sure that you’re going to be able to use that. If not, make a plan to go to the library. If you think you’re going to struggle to motivate yourself without friends around, make plans to meet some of your friends to revise together.

Alex Lawsen: A tangential example of this is actually one of the best things I did for learning more about effective altruism, the sphere we both work in. During a period of inspiration where I was like, “I want to learn loads more about it,” I made a bookmark on my phone’s home screen to the Effective Altruism Forum, which we could put a link to. I was quite deliberate about this. I wanted to set myself up to do this: if I got my phone out — because I had some idle time and wanted to kill time — I would click on the EA Forum because it was on my home screen, and then I’d read stuff on there. And this seemed strictly better than scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, which is probably showing my age. Or like TikTok, which I can like gesture at, having never used but I hear is what the kids are doing now.

Keiran Harris: What’s a concrete example that students could use? So if they’re not trying to learn about effective altruism, is there a one-to-one prompt here, where they could have a bookmark to X?

Alex Lawsen: I think maybe the easiest thing on their phone could be to have a bookmark to their AnkiApp. We should probably talk separately about what Anki is — my claim is that this could be the most useful thing to have as an idle thing. But maybe some others, because using Anki is somewhat costly, could be a forum called The Student Room — which has, I should flag, a bunch of terrible advice on it, especially about getting into Oxbridge. I think some of the advice on getting into Oxbridge on that forum is like uniquely bad and actively harmful, because mostly it’s a bunch of like 14-year-olds spitballing about things they have no idea about.

Alex Lawsen: The exception to that is the subject advice forums. I can only speak to the maths and physics ones here, but these are really good. People post homework problems with attempts and help each other with them. There are worked solutions to all of the old STEP papers. STEP papers are a very hard exam that you sit to get into the University of Cambridge to do maths and maybe for a couple of other subjects. So maybe some forum like that. If you’re a student, physicsforums.com has a similar setup, where you can post undergraduate work and some random PhD students will help you with it. Yeah, find a website that seems low cost to read, but at least somewhat useful, and pick that.

Keiran Harris: Great. Now, some even very bright students just struggle with motivation all year round. Maybe up until now they’ve actually never experienced this moment of inspiration or these periods of motivation. Do you have any ideas for how a student like that could sort of jolt themselves into at least occasionally feeling motivated?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. I think I want to slightly not answer the question.

Keiran Harris: Sure.

Alex Lawsen: I like the question. And I guess my thing is, can they find something that they’re really excited about? That actually matters to them? To some extent, I don’t really care what that thing is. For many people we know, that thing is really helping others and working out how to help others. For some people, it might be just a really deep interest in one thing. It does seem to matter that you just have something that’s really interesting to you. If you haven’t found that thing yet, that’s a hard situation to be in, and actually just spending some time looking for that thing seems fine — seems maybe even better than trying to force yourself to do some more schoolwork, actually.

Alex Lawsen: There’s degrees here — like, school is instrumentally valuable. What I mean by that is that it helps you get to later things, which seem to open doors to you. So, if you do end up inspired by something and want to go and study it a bunch, having good grades in school up to that point is useful, because you’ll be able to go and study it somewhere good.

Alex Lawsen: But I think it is just pretty important to just find something — something that grasps you. And if that thing is a subject, then you can just directly go and study it. And if that thing is something else — maybe it’s trying to do the most good, maybe it’s just trying to acquire a bunch of money, or look after your family, there’s a whole bunch of stuff — then you have to do this thing of, “What do I need to achieve in order to do that thing?” And then, if you have that thing that you’re shooting at, then you can go like, “Okay, how do I get there?” and that could provide some motivation.

Alex Lawsen: I should probably also flag that, if you’re just finding it really hard to think about doing anything a lot of the time, you should probably ask someone for help. Maybe this looks like talking to a doctor or talking to an adult you trust, going like, “I’m just feeling like I can’t do anything all of the time.” This sort of thing is something that you can get help with. And Keiran, you interviewed our colleague on what was my personal favorite episode of the podcast of all time. People struggle with this sort of thing, and it’s possible to get some help for it some of the time. And I think, actually, “I really can’t motivate myself to do anything ever” seems to be a somewhat informative signal that you should at least explore the idea of if there is something here that someone can help you with.

Keiran Harris: Yeah, absolutely. If listeners want to hear that episode, that’s episode #100 of The 80,000 Hours Podcast, and you can find that on the main podcast feed.

Applying maths to things you already find interesting [00:58:48]

Keiran Harris: This may be a tangent, but I was just curious: as a maths teacher, have you ever tried to engage people by finding an existing interest and then applying maths to that? So if someone was really into sports, and they got really into baseball or football statistics, they can obviously apply that to their maths class at some point. Have you ever directly used that or even brought that into the classroom?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think so. Or at least, I think I’ve done something close to it. Maybe one thing to say here is that I think this does get done kind of badly at least some of the time. Just putting an example into a sheet that you think is relevant to the students, it can just fall really flat, right? Maybe we’ll stick in the notes the “Hello fellow kids” meme or whatever it is — I get those kind of vibes from it. But I did do something close to this, and it really helped. I just really fucking love maths, and I didn’t have to pretend about this. And this was also true of physics and so I did a thing where I was like, “This is just so useful, and this is why I think it’s useful, and this is why I’m excited about it.”

Alex Lawsen: And I didn’t try that hard to guess at the students’ interests, and then go, “Here’s a contrived way of the thing we are particularly using being useful here.” But I did actually just talk a lot, with lots of different kinds of maths, about some of the ways this thing becomes really important or really cool later. I think anyone who’s talked to me about either maths or physics for any length of time will just get that I just love these things. Something that I got as feedback from students a lot was how I was just really genuinely excited by the things I was teaching them, and this rubbed off or something.

Alex Lawsen: Also, the thing you said is true, right? Maths is just really useful for most things you might be interested in. So on many occasions, kids were like, “What do you think about this?” It usually wasn’t phrased as, “In what way can maths be useful for X?” But they’d mention an interest in X and I would probably go something like, “Oh, did you know, this bit of maths is really important in X.” Not to try and get them convinced by that bit of maths, but just because that’s how my brain works.

Alex Lawsen: Maybe the strongest example of this is how I did loads of music production as a kid, and I understood all of the music production in terms of physics. I was learning these things at the same time, and there’s just so many connections between these two — I don’t really know how to understand large aspects of physics without thinking of it in terms of music. And I have no idea how producers who don’t know as much physics as me do it, even though the vast majority of producers in the world are way better than me at production and way worse than me at physics.

Keiran Harris: That’s very cool. Do you want to expand on the connection between physics and music?

Alex Lawsen: I think it’s probably not that useful to hear a half-hour excited monologue of random connections Alex sees or something. But maybe it would be useful to point to the fact that these connections exist. What’s been good and written about this? Adam Neely, the YouTuber, has some pretty exciting videos on music theory, especially things about equal temperament and microtonal music. If you search for these terms — and we’ll put some specific videos in the links section — there’s a thing about how the frequency spectrum is divided up into notes, which is somewhat arbitrary, but to do with maths. And there’s also this thing about how pianos are not perfectly in tune or something, which is also to do with maths.

Alex Lawsen: Maybe a book that’s incredibly close to my heart — because my aunt, who was a physics teacher, gave it to me — it’s called Measured Tones, and it’s kind of difficult to get a copy of, so it’s probably not actually going to be a useful recommendation. But I don’t know, maybe someone will steal it and upload us a PDF at some point. It’s old enough, right? The last chapter is speculating about how maybe one day computers will be used to make music. [laughs] But it’s about the physics of music, and it’s great and I loved it when I was a kid.

Exploring and experimenting in school [01:03:05]

Keiran Harris: That’s very cool. So how much should students be thinking about exploring and experimenting when they’re in school?

Alex Lawsen: Great question. My impression of students — and actually, frankly, of undergraduate students that I’ve spoken to since I started advising — is that in general, people make the mistake of trying to specialize too early. So the language you are using is somewhat commonly used — maybe a good place to start if people haven’t heard these terms before is an episode of the show that was made before I joined. It’s the first episode with Brian Christian, who wrote The Alignment Problem. Or you can just read his book. So, it is true that he wrote The Alignment Problem, but the thing I’m actually referring to is an earlier book of his, Algorithms to Live By. But while we’re here, let’s recommend The Alignment Problem too, because it’s one of my favorite books, genuinely.

Keiran Harris: And a good episode of the podcast. So yeah, do you want to introduce this idea of exploration?

Alex Lawsen: Right. The thing the question was actually about was this explore/exploit tradeoff, where there’s some claim that you should spend some time trying a bunch of different stuff, to see what works. And then at some point — or maybe somewhat continuously — you should pick the thing that’s worked best so far and do loads of that. My claim is that, in many situations, students should be doing more exploring. This might look like learning about some different subjects and trying to work out what they’re super psyched on.

Alex Lawsen: This seems like particularly a problem in the UK, because you just have to specialize really early. Keiran, I don’t actually know if you know this, because you’re not from the UK. But at age 16 you basically have to pick between three and five subjects, and that’s then basically all you do for the next two years. And then you go and do one of those things at uni. And that’s it — you’re studying that one thing. Maybe you are studying two things, if you’re doing a joint degree. But when I say “go and study maths at uni,” this isn’t like, “go and major in maths.” This is like all of your lessons and classes and lectures and exams will be just maths, and that’s it.

Keiran Harris: Right. Is that the case even if you’re not studying maths? In the UK, if you are doing a history degree or something, do you not take courses in any other areas?

Alex Lawsen: No. Pretty much no. So there are some joint degrees. And actually, maybe a useful thing to flag — which is not my particular area of expertise, but something I know that our colleague Michelle thinks is important — is that there are some subjects at university that you don’t have to have studied at A Level to do at university. You should at least consider those options, especially if you haven’t studied them. One example is economics: you can have studied maths, a couple of other things, neither of which were economics — and this would be fine in many places to go and study economics at university. And maybe another one is philosophy, where I think three good A Levels — none of which are in philosophy — may well be fine in many places to go and study it, especially if you’ve done some reading on your own.

Alex Lawsen: But my impression is, of the vast majority of subjects at university, you literally only study that thing. The cases where you’re not studying only one thing is because the course is a joint course. So there’s physics and philosophy, or maths and philosophy, in many places. Oxford has the famous politics, philosophy and economics. There’s other things like, there’s something called human sciences at Cambridge, or there’s natural sciences as well. But actually, natural sciences can involve just studying maths and physics and, I don’t know, earth sciences and geology in the first year. And then, you drop two or three of those and you just end up doing maths or doing physics or doing both.

Advice for choosing what to study [01:06:32]

Keiran Harris: This moment, when you’re 16 and you’re making this decision to specialize, basically — this seems incredibly stressful, and must feel like a very high-stakes decision. Do you have advice on making this call?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. I should probably flag that I don’t actually have that much experience helping people make this call, because for the last five years I was teaching in what’s called ‘Sixth form’ — so this is people that have already chosen their A Levels. I think some useful things to say is that there are some subjects which seem just generally better respected than others, by universities. And many of you, if you ask your teachers, they’ll give you straight answers here.

Alex Lawsen: Another thing you can do is look at entrance requirements for competitive courses at different universities. Some of these will sometimes have a list of subjects which are not counted as one of the three subjects that are required to… One classic example is general studies is just not really counted as a proper subject or something. There’s more subtle degrees. Some subjects that do seem pretty difficult — and pretty well respected for being difficult — are maths, all of the straight science subjects (so biology, physics, chemistry), history seems to be up there, English seems to be up there.

Alex Lawsen: I think languages seem to be up there too, but maybe just one or something.

Alex Lawsen: You probably shouldn’t pick a university subject when you are choosing your A Levels — this seems like specializing way too early. But generating a list of seven or eight subjects that you might want to study, and then seeing if you can find a combination of A Levels that is interesting to you — and won’t rule you out from studying any of them — seems kind of important. And that actually seems pretty possible, by picking A Levels that seem generally well respected.

What exploration actually looks like [01:08:15]

Keiran Harris: So being as concrete as possible, when we’re talking about exploration for young students, what does that actually look like? How can students get a sense of whether or not this is the right path for them?

Alex Lawsen: Maybe the thing we’re gesturing at with “try to explore more” is that you should try lots of different things in many scenarios. This is actually not very helpful advice, so let’s see if we can break it down to see what this would look like if you were doing this well. Actually, one kind of important thing — and there’s a really funny web sketch kind of gesturing at something true but obviously over-the-top that we’ll find and put in the comments. And the idea is: the number of mistakes you should make is not zero. So if you try a bunch of things and all of them work, I claim that you did not try enough things.

Keiran Harris: If kids aren’t drowning.

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. This is the sketch. And to be clear, I don’t actually think that kids should be drowning. So the joke of the sketch — because it’s always funny to explain jokes — is David Mitchell is a call-in on a radio show, and is really angry that no drownings have happened in his village, because that means there must be way more money being spent than there should be on preventing drownings. Because to prevent all the drownings, you must be spending catastrophic amounts of money, and the right number of drownings is therefore not zero. And it’s obviously a silly example, but I think the true thing it’s gesturing at is that the number of mistakes you make should just not be zero. Because if you’re only trying stuff you know is going to work, you’re not actually trying anything at all.

Mistakes Alex has learned from [01:09:52]

Keiran Harris: Yeah. Do you have examples from your own life, or of students? Pretty informative or helpful mistakes?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. That seems like a good thing to ask. A way of framing this is that mistakes may in fact be really valuable, if they generate useful information. And I think this is the way to frame exploration: when you try a thing and it doesn’t work out, this is useful to you, because you gain information about which things work and which things don’t.

Alex Lawsen: So what mistakes did I make that seemed pretty useful? Maybe one is that the A Levels I ended up doing were maths, further maths, physics, and philosophy. These were not the A Levels I started off doing. I started off doing maths, French, physics, and philosophy. And I just really hated French.

Alex Lawsen: And to be clear, I feel some regret over not having studied it more. I understand French passably well — like I would survive in France without Google Translate. And it would be obvious to most people when I was speaking most of the time that I was English, but I would be speaking to them in French. So I liked the language, and it felt important to me to be able to speak a second language.

Alex Lawsen: I just didn’t get on with the subject at all; it was just not for me. And also, I really liked maths, and all of my friends were having a great time doing more maths, and so I switched. I switched actually too late — there was a deadline by which you could switch, and I was three weeks after the deadline. And I just begged and said, “I’ve worked really hard to catch up on all the maths,” and luckily was allowed to. This worked out really well for me.

Keiran Harris: There’s a bit of advice in there: even if you technically have missed a deadline or something, maybe you should just actually ask. Maybe you should actually follow it up.

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. If something’s really important, don’t let a somewhat arbitrary thing rule out the possibility of trying.

Keiran Harris: Yeah.

Alex Lawsen: Okay, here’s something I just definitely got very wrong for a very long time. The mistake here is not exploring enough. So, I have been rejected from jobs I’ve applied to maybe twice, maybe three times — it’s possible there’s one or two times I’m not remembering, but I’m confident it’s less than five times. This is ridiculous, this is stupid. This is because I just never applied for anything that I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to get.

Alex Lawsen: And to be clear, I didn’t quite apply for [my current job at 80,000 Hours], so I was definitely not 100% sure I was going to get it. I was in fact, so sure I was not going to get it that I just never applied, and ended up speaking to Michelle about something else. So I just haven’t been rejected from anything because I was terrified of being rejected. And this seems like a very concrete mistake.

Keiran Harris: Yeah, definitely. I mean, that seems like a particularly hard one to notice in the moment while it’s actually happening. Do you have any tips there? I guess we’re getting away from school a little bit here, but just while we’re on it.

Alex Lawsen: There’s a bunch of prestigious stuff that you can apply to as a school kid — summer internships, competitions. Maybe just a concretely good thing to say is, in most subjects that you might be excited about, there might be some kind of Olympiad. The International Maths Olympiad is maybe the most famous, there’s an International Physics Olympiad too — I’ve helped a little bit with the British team, written some questions for it, that sort of thing. Entering these and failing in a massive flaming car crash because you’ve never done that sort of thing before — that seems like good evidence that you’re exploring hard enough.

Keiran Harris: Yeah.

Alex Lawsen: I didn’t enter any of these competitions when I was a kid.

Keiran Harris: Oh, wow.

Alex Lawsen: I didn’t know about them. Having said that, it seems pretty likely to me that if I had known about them, I would still not have entered, because I was worried about doing badly. And that feels like it would’ve been a mistake.

Anki [01:13:42]

Keiran Harris: Yeah. That seems great to point out. Do you have any studying tools that you’d especially recommend?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. There’s one that seems really valuable for people to know about. I think we mentioned it earlier, this is a tool called Anki. Anki is an application that allows you to do spaced repetition. So there’s a few things to know here. One is spaced repetition. Let’s put in a link to something that explains what it is in detail, but the high-level thing is that there’s really good evidence that it’s a very good way of getting stuff into your long-term memory. And I’m confident in saying that because there’s been a bunch of studies, and it’s not just me seeing it work with some kids or something.

Alex Lawsen: The other thing that’s particularly useful about Anki is that there’s lots of things that let you get stuff into your long-term memory. One is that it’s incredibly simple; it’s just really easy to use. And the other is that it has a phone app, so you can have it on your phone. So there’s two parts: making the flashcards and reviewing them. Reviewing them doesn’t take very long and can be done on your phone.

Alex Lawsen: So if you’re just idly using your phone, or if you have a commute to school and you’re having to stand up because it’s really crowded on a bus or something. And there is not that much useful stuff you could be doing with that time, and actually, it’s not that useful that you could relax with that time. But potentially you could do Anki review at that time. Let’s say your commute’s half an hour each way — that’s like a free hour of work each day that you’ve got, that isn’t costing you any socializing or isn’t costing you any relaxation. It’s just like, “Oh yeah, I could use my commute for that.”

Keiran Harris: Yeah. That’s great. Do you want to get into more specifics of how this works?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. I think that would be useful, because maybe if you are studying maths or studying physics, listening to this and you hear you can memorize stuff. You might think, “Huh, not for me. Memorizing is bad in maths and physics.” And I broadly agree. I certainly think that a mistake that lots of students make, especially in science subjects, is trying to memorize answers to styles of questions, without trying to understand what’s going on. And this seems bad, because understanding what’s going on, at least for the first two terms, is really important.

Alex Lawsen: But what should you use it for? I think there’s an analogy here that seems really useful, which is that vocabulary can be thought of as technology. What I mean by this is that sometimes really big, difficult, subtle, complicated concepts are really important to refer to in lots of situations, and having a word for the thing just makes it much easier to understand what’s going on with that thing.

Alex Lawsen: One way I noticed this really strongly, and you’ll probably be able to think of some more examples than me, is having played poker for ages. If I was trying to explain to someone a bunch of tactics, I’d say stuff like, “What’s your range in this situation?” Or “Are you worrying about reverse implied odds here?” And these both refer to concepts that would take a few minutes to explain, but being able to have a label for it, it’s an efficiency thing in your brain — where now I can just say “reverse implied odds” rather than a two-minute description or something.

Keiran Harris: Obviously, we could get more into the poker examples, but do you have any examples that people probably know? Maybe it’s the kind of thing that you would learn when you’re 17, but you can think back and think, “When I was 14, I didn’t know this.”

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. I think I have an example that is not to do with either of the subjects. And I didn’t really want to pull out a physics or maths example or something, but let’s embarrass myself here for a bit, and I’m going to use an example from a game I played at university called ultimate frisbee.

Keiran Harris: Okay. Let’s do it.

Alex Lawsen: It’s not actually to do with the game ultimate frisbee; it’s to do with throwing a frisbee. So if you imagine that you are right-handed and you are going to throw forwards, in a somewhat normal motion. I’m gesturing, but obviously this is just audio. The frisbee will fly flat, and if you sort of lean it to the right, it may curve right as it flies, or it may curve left as it flies, or it may fly completely straight. And there are words for this. So curving right, for this right-handed backhand is an “outside-in throw,” curving left is an “inside-out throw.” And I’m probably realizing at this point that if I picked football or something, it would’ve been much easier.

Alex Lawsen: But the idea is, there’s a whole bunch of different words that can describe different flight paths of the throw. And what’s important here is that if I’m throwing, and the throw curved to the right too quickly before it hit the person I was throwing to, then if I’m trying to adjust for this, I have to say something like, “I would like the throw I just threw to still start left and curve to the right but it should curve to the right more slowly than the previous one did.” And if I have some vocabulary, I can say “less outside-in on that throw,” or actually just “less OI on that throw.” Then I can just do it again. This just means that I don’t have to use as much cognition to work out what went wrong and what to change — I can just point to the thing that’s important straight away.

Alex Lawsen: Here’s a school example that’s simple enough that everyone will recognize it. I claim that learning your times tables is really important, even though this is rote memorization and not understanding. And most people who love maths go like, “Oh, but you should understand stuff. You shouldn’t just have to memorize things.” But actually, if you know your times tables, then whenever you are doing anything that involves multiplication or division — and something like 90% of maths you do at age 16 involves either multiplication or division — you don’t have to, whenever you see a pair of numbers, spend time working out what their product is or how to factorize a number. You can just go like, “Oh, it’s that, because I’ve memorized that.” So this is freeing up your brain power to do other stuff.

Alex Lawsen: Hopefully, anyone listening to this will have already memorized their times tables, to the point they don’t need Anki to do them. But there are other things like this. And I claim in most subjects there are things like this, where having the vocabulary is really useful. What this might look like when you’re actually studying is, when you come across a new concept in class, taking time to write down — in your own words — a detailed explanation of what that concept means, and then putting that into Anki as a card.

Alex Lawsen: And then the idea is, when you’re reviewing the cards, the question is not, “Can I precisely remember the definition that I wrote down that first time?” The question should be, “Do I understand what this term is referring to?” And if that is true, if you can answer that question honestly with yes — on the app you say whether the card was easy to remember or not. But that’s the thing you should be trying. Not the word-for-word definition, but “Do I get what’s going on with this thing? Do I get what this thing is pointing at?”

Keiran Harris: Great. Anything else on Anki?

Alex Lawsen: Let’s flag that there’s lots of good resources on how to use Anki. We’ll put a couple in the show notes. One general one, which is most people’s first introduction to it (at least in our communities), is by Michael Nielsen. But then there’s a couple of specific ones on how to use it for maths — especially maths at university — to do with memorizing proofs, which I think is really important and somewhat surprising for people that haven’t thought about it, but isn’t generally relevant. So, let’s just put a link into that.

How important is it to have good teachers? [01:20:45]

Keiran Harris: Cool. Here’s a question I had. Whether you end up with good teachers or bad teachers seems totally out of your control as a kid — just like totally good luck, bad luck. And it seems really hard to know how much of an impact that actually has. Do you think that people generally underestimate or overestimate the importance of having good versus bad teachers?

Alex Lawsen: My guess is that teachers overestimate the importance of having good teachers. But this is not based on any evidence — I just feel like we should have some prior that most people think their jobs are important. Do you feel like you have a sense of how much you think having good or bad teachers matters? And I could see if I think that’s well calibrated or something?

Keiran Harris: I’m deeply uncertain. I feel like I never really had the experience. Maybe this is too harsh for anyone who listens to this, but I don’t feel like I had the experience of ever having really amazing teachers. I hear you talking about things like, “Here’s how I’m helping someone through an interview,” and I’m like, “That sounds amazing.” I never actually had that, and I imagine that would be incredibly helpful. But at the same time, I’m also thinking, “Well, maybe just having these tools is fine.” So I don’t have a confident take.

Alex Lawsen: Thanks. That’s kind of nice to hear. I think maybe something like having a support network of some form is going to be really important, but that form might not be teachers. We were talking earlier about the importance of having some friends doing the same thing as you. It feels like that could be a support network.

Alex Lawsen: But yeah, I pretty strongly believe that having some support network is going to be somewhere between very useful and life saving for different students. And maybe I’m lucky to have been able to be that support network for some kids. I think many kids I’ve directly interacted with, I’ve had very little positive influence on, because they had other good support, often from their parents. I think parents being invested in your education, and also just generally supportive of you and not putting undue pressure on, is going to do a huge amount. So it feels like there’s multiple ways you can get the thing, and teaching is maybe one of them.

Alex Lawsen: Maybe the other thing is this motivation thing as well. I had some really inspiring teachers when I was at school, and I had some really inspiring family around me too, who were really excited by physics. Actually, that was a large part of my love for it, and we talked about some of it already. But yes, maybe teachers can be that inspiration.

Keiran Harris: Yeah, that’s interesting. How much of the value of being a teacher did you see as being, I suppose, either this support network or just being someone who could kind of inspire kids, versus actually being able to teach the specific material well?

Alex Lawsen: I have a lot of self-doubt, and I think I did a pretty good job of teaching the material. So, I don’t think it hurt. I should also flag that I was in a school where everyone was really keen on maths, and at least somewhat keen on physics — the physics keenness varied somewhat. But I was in a school full of kids where basically everyone bought into learning the things, and this does just make my job as a teacher easier.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. You didn’t have the experience of being in the kind of classic movie situation of you go into an inner-city school and no one wants to learn, and you’re inspiring everyone. You were in a situation where the kids were kind of on board.

Alex Lawsen: So the first three years of my education, I was in a school where I was physically attacked on more than one occasion by students. I did have chairs thrown at me and at other students. Kids often had very difficult home lives. Parents often had very difficult lives. And that was a very different experience and much harder. Frankly, it was much harder for the kids than it was for me, but it was also much harder for me.

Alex Lawsen: And I don’t think that from that experience, I got the classic movie scene of suddenly all of the kids are super inspired and love their subject. I think I was able to provide a stable presence in the lives of some of those kids. There was this thing that staff turnover in this school was kind of high, to the point where coming back after the first term, the kids are instantly a bit better with you because they realize you’re not rotating cover. You’re there to stick around. I stayed there for three years. So there’s some of that for some of those kids as well — I was the adult that they trusted enough to tell about some bad stuff that was going on in their life.

Alex Lawsen: That was important. I think the key thing is that I’m gesturing at all these bad things, and I actually just think the vast majority of the kids I interacted with would’ve been fine with someone else. And maybe a lot of the value was helping the ones who wouldn’t have been, but it’s somewhat unclear to me, because I think I have the kind of personality where maybe those cases feel more salient. Maybe it feels somewhat generally true that making 200 kids across a couple of years do 2% better — it’s just kind of hard to notice or believe. But helping one kid who is really struggling to feel a bit better is much easier to remember.

Keiran Harris: Is it possible to be a bit more explicit about what good teachers do well?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, thanks. That’s a sensible prompt. I’ve been talking about maybe soft skills or something, but there are actually some things that directly help with what most people conceptualize as teaching.

Alex Lawsen: So I’ve talked a couple of times about the importance of doing really effective practice, and that one of the things that’s a component of doing really effective practice is making sure the difficulty level of the practice that you’re doing is correct for you. I think this is something that teachers, especially good teachers, can really help you with — both in terms of giving you suggestions for how to adjust the difficulty level of a specific task, so that it seems better matched to your ability, but then also in giving you feedback on whether the difficulty level should be higher or lower.

Alex Lawsen: Maybe the simplest thing this looks like is just telling you what sort of things to practice. But then giving you some sense of ways you can make this practice seem easier, or ways you can challenge yourself more — like particularly good things. Often teachers will have a good ability to judge how difficult the thing you need to be doing is in order for you to make the most progress.

Keiran Harris: What’s another thing that good teachers do well?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I’m trying to now push for just some simple, everyday things. It is actually the case that good teachers just give very good feedback on tasks you’ve done. And getting good feedback on tasks you’ve done is one of the most valuable things you can get in terms of improving. So what might this look like? One obvious thing is instead of just saying whether you did the thing correctly or not, they’ll give some suggestions for how you might improve with similar things in the future. This is fairly obvious and straightforward, and you can definitely get this advice from friends — or even from yourself, if you think about it. But it’s much quicker and can often identify things that you weren’t aware of as mistakes, if you have a good teacher giving you detailed feedback on a piece of work that you’ve done.

Alex Lawsen: I do think this is one thing as well where you get increasing returns — so the harder you’ve tried on the piece of work, probably the more useful that detailed feedback is going to be. Then maybe there’s another thing, which seems more like good teachers might be able to give you feedback at a higher level than just task by task. It’s like a higher level of abstraction.

Alex Lawsen: So what do I mean by that? So something more like, what sorts of things should you be focusing your time on improving? What sorts of strategies might you want to use in general to approach things? This could be like approaching specific problems. It could also be just in your life: teachers give decent life advice. They just see lots of students, and students do tend to find similar things difficult or similar things easy.

Alex Lawsen: So as well as just, “I did this problem; how can I get it right next time?” More stuff like, what sorts of problems should you be doing? And how much time should you be spending on those things? And how do you prioritize the various challenges that you have? This sort of feedback can also be really valuable. And teachers — good teachers — can be a great source of this.

Keiran Harris: I’m wondering if it’s always easy to know that you have a good teacher. Is there anything that good teachers do well that would be hard to notice?

Alex Lawsen: I think it depends on how reflective you’re being. But maybe something I’ve tried to do a little bit in this interview, actually, that I think seems pretty important and might not be noticed, is give really clear success criteria for tasks that someone is doing. I think this probably merits an explanation. What does this mean?

Alex Lawsen: The idea is, if you’re doing a task, it’s really helpful for you to be able to easily understand what it means to do that task well. So ideally, you get some sort of feedback signal immediately, which suggests “This thing is going well.” It’s like one reason many people enjoy rock climbing is the success criterion is very straightforward, right? If you have not fallen off yet, it is going well.

Alex Lawsen: But in many tasks actually, a teacher, or mentor, or someone giving you a phrase, like, “You’ll know you’re doing this well when…” is pretty useful in terms of you being able to then self-evaluate. I think why this can be quite subtle is that, if you have a clear success criterion, probably what it feels like is just you feel like you’re improving. You know how well you’re doing at the task, and that feels great. Because then when you make adjustments, and they improve your performance, you just know your performance is improving.

Alex Lawsen: Sometimes this can come from direct feedback. But maybe the best-designed tasks — or instructions that have been given to you by someone really skilled — you don’t even realize this has happened. But when you’re actually doing the thing, it just feels very productive — because you know whether it’s being useful, and you know whether you’re improving. And maybe one of the reasons for this is — either explicitly or somewhere implicitly in the task design or structure — there’s some mechanism which allows you to very clearly know how well you’re doing.

Alex Lawsen: There’s a lesson for this when teaching yourself, which is something like, “How do I know whether this task is going well?” And answering that question seems pretty important. And that’s something that great teachers may well do for you, without you even noticing.

Tips for when you have a bad teacher [01:30:48]

Keiran Harris: Yeah. So it seems to me at least that you were a great teacher, but obviously that’s not the case for every teacher. And yeah, it can be pretty unlucky for kids to get bad teachers. Do you have tips for how to deal with that situation, if they do find themselves with someone who’s pretty clearly a bad teacher?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think there are some useful things you can do. And actually my experience at school was not uniformly good — I had some teachers that were less good, or at least certainly at the time I liked them less. And I want to flag that I’m not entirely convinced these things are the same. So I don’t want to try and slag off members of the profession, and I also think it’s definitely possible that a kid could think a teacher is bad and this, in fact, could not be true.

Keiran Harris: Sure.

Alex Lawsen: But let’s use the phrase “bad teacher” and not worry about it, but have flagged that it’s maybe not exactly true. So if you think one of your teachers is bad, maybe ask the question, “What is the most value I can get out of this situation anyway?” It may be the case that you don’t like their style or the kind of work they give or something, but they do in fact have a degree in the subject that you’re trying to learn from them. If this is the case, then they can at least provide at least somewhat accurate answers to questions that specifically relate to subject knowledge.

Alex Lawsen: So the thing we flagged at the start about really going through an exam paper, this is true for doing questions in general. And I do think that the best way to get better at science-y subjects — which is the only thing I can talk about in general — is just trying to answer questions, and then getting feedback when you have done that.

Alex Lawsen: And so, to be clear, if your teacher just refuses to provide feedback for you, or is genuinely unable to because they don’t have the subject knowledge, then go to the internet, places like The Student Room, or Physics Forums if you’re at university, or there’s probably a maths forum too.

Alex Lawsen: But it seems at least somewhat likely that even a teacher that someone doesn’t particularly like, or thinks is bad in a classroom setting, may still be able to help you if you bring them a question where you’ve made the best attempt you can at answering it. And if you have answers available, then found out you’re wrong and tried to understand why you’re wrong, you can bring them this question and be like, “This was my answer. The book says this. I don’t know why the book says that. I don’t know what went wrong with my technique.” But if you’ve put a lot of effort into trying, it’s pretty cheap in terms of time or effort for the teacher to help you quite a lot by telling you what went wrong, or telling you what the correct thing is.

Tips for when you have a great teacher [01:33:16]

Keiran Harris: That makes sense. Okay. So that’s if you’ve been unlucky and you find yourself with a bad teacher. What about if the opposite is true? What if you’ve gotten lucky and you find yourself with a really great teacher? Do you have any tips for getting the most out of that situation?

Alex Lawsen: I kind of feel like if you have a really great teacher, then they are going to get the most out of that situation for you or something. And I actually want to caution about how there’s ways this could be zero-sum, where if you think a teacher is really great because they’re always willing to answer all of your questions. Maybe this teacher is just really great. Maybe this teacher is just somewhat too nice or something. And actually, maybe the thing I flagged a minute ago, you could have a slightly lower bar for asking it with a really good teacher — but it probably is useful to still try really hard on your own first, and then ask them.

Alex Lawsen: I can see some failure mode where if a teacher is just always willing to explain anything to you, this would seem really great. And frankly, it does seem like a strong signal that they really care, which I think is very strongly correlated with actually being great. But maybe in that situation — if they’re always willing to explain the thing — taking some time to really try and understand it first seems valuable, in making sure that you are actually doing the hard thing and getting them to help.

Alex Lawsen: Maybe the big thing is the ways in which I think teachers are really great are being safe enough and trustworthy enough to be the person that you can turn to if something’s going really wrong. And the thing to flag is it could be that there’s some teacher in your school or some person in your college that that is true for even if they aren’t directly responsible for you or something. This is not quite how to maximize having a great teacher, but I guess point towards if there’s someone like that, it seems really valuable to find out who they are.

Focused, deliberate practice [01:35:06]

Keiran Harris: Yeah. So you seem to think that practice is pretty valuable in lots of different situations. Can you talk a little bit more about focused, deliberate practice?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. This seems useful. Maybe the high-level thing is having a very clear goal for the practice, so, “What am I trying to do here?” Some ways that practice looks good is if the difficulty is matched to your current skill level — this means approximately you are finding it pretty hard, but succeeding at least some of the time. And you can somewhat moderate this with how stressed you’re feeling or how confident you’re feeling — where if you’re feeling a bit more stressed or a bit less confident, you can make the success rate a bit higher. But basically, I think if you are always getting the thing right, this seems too easy. And if you’re never getting the thing right, this seems too hard. Maybe we can go through a couple of examples.

Alex Lawsen: When you’re doing past papers, there are some different ways you can manipulate the difficulty of the paper. So, on the end of making it easier: if you have loads of past papers and you’re quite far from the exam, and you just want to do something that looks kind of like doing a paper, but is somewhat easier because you haven’t finished the material — then doing a paper with some notes with you, or doing a paper not in timed conditions. Or making a sheet of notes — giving yourself time to make one A4 sheet of notes that you’re allowed to bring in, but nothing else. These are all ways you can make things easier.

Alex Lawsen: On the other end, let’s go into making sure you are training for a really specific thing. If timing is an issue, you can give yourself much less time than you would usually have available, and see how quickly you can do the paper.

Alex Lawsen: If those technical mistakes we talked about earlier are an issue, you can play an accuracy game. This would look something like the score that you get in the paper is all of the marks you got right up to the first mark you got wrong, and then everything after that counts as zero. That’s like an extreme version. A slightly less extreme version is when the first mark you drop counts as one mark, the second mark you drop counts as four marks, the third mark you drop counts as nine marks, and so on — so squaring the number of marks, things like that. I guess the key thing is just manipulate the difficulty level of the task, such that it is hard enough that you are failing at least some of the time, but not impossible.

Keiran Harris: Cool. Yeah. Did you have anything else you wanted to add there?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. So one other thing that I think there’s some evidence for from sport — but I’m not super confident, because I’m just kind of remembering that I maybe read a study at some point — is the value of mixed practice. So practicing exactly the same thing over and over again kind of feels great, because you get really good at it, so you get really high success. Practicing a whole bunch of different things at once feels harder, and feels like you’re not improving because it is harder to constantly switch. But actually doing the harder thing, like practicing the next thing — there’s some claim that it gives you better transfer.

Alex Lawsen: So I think the study was talking about basketball free throws. It’s something like one group of participants is practicing basketball free throws — they just always take shots from the free throw line. And then there’s another group of participants that are just taking shots from a range of places that are somewhat near the free throw line, but some are further away, and some are closer together, and some are exactly on the line. The second group just makes a smaller percentage of their shots throughout the training, because it’s harder to constantly shoot from different directions and you can’t adjust as much.

Alex Lawsen: But then when you test them both on the thing — which is shooting free throws — the group that did the mixed practice, the harder practice, does better. And I basically have no idea if the study replicated, but it seems to be pointing at something that I just have seen work a lot, which is actually practicing a bunch of different things, rather than doing one thing until it’s perfect. And then moving on to the next thing and forgetting about the first thing does seem kind of useful.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. What’s an example from school?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. A good example from school is revising for a test, let’s say in physics. One really important skill in actual physics, as well as physics exams, is working out what parts of your knowledge are required to answer a question. What is the question about? What are the relevant things? And if you have practiced electromagnetism for three days, and then you’ve gone and done mechanics for three days, and then you’ve gone and done like… Oh God, there’s more to physics than electromagnetism and mechanics.

Keiran Harris: Is there a third thing?

Alex Lawsen: [laughs] Is there a third thing? Quantum mechanics? That’s not mechanics. Yeah, you practice these different things. And I guess then there’s some danger of getting to the actual exam and you don’t even know what this question is about. Or you’re just not as practiced at switching between having all your mechanics knowledge loaded up in your head and having all your quantum mechanics knowledge loaded up in your head and having all your electromagnetism knowledge loaded up in your head. So some websites create big packs of questions by topic, and I think these are maybe net harmful.

Bad approaches to learning [01:39:54]

Keiran Harris: So what’s a bad approach you’ve seen to learning?

Alex Lawsen: I think maybe we’ve gestured at a couple of these already. One is the failure mode of “I’m going to make everything look really neat and really pretty” and not focus on the actual learning. And maybe we’re going to do some confirmation bias here. List some things and it’s going to be, “Ha, that thing I told you to do earlier — if you don’t do it, you end up here.” This is the case of not being clear about what you’re optimizing for. Things looking nice is not that important. So if it is costing you time or energy to make things look nice that you could be using learning — and that conditional may not be true; it might be that you really enjoy making stuff look nice, and so worth some time doing that. But I’ve definitely seen people who are just like, “I need to put effort in. So I’m going to put effort into making it look nice and not learn the stuff.”

Keiran Harris: Yep. Definitely. What’s another one?

Alex Lawsen: Another one, which is somewhat related, is reading over the textbook a bunch or making a bunch of pretty notes. And what’s going on here is you are not practicing recall — and you’re going to be tested on recall. You’re going to be tested on “can I retrieve the useful information from my brain?” — and there are much better ways of making sure that you can do that than just reviewing the information again and again. For example, reviewing the information in a spaced way using Anki that we talked about earlier. But just reading over a textbook feels safe and nice because you’re like, “Ah, the stuff must be going in because I’m reading all the correct answers.” And actually just isn’t very helpful.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. Are there any other major ways?

Alex Lawsen: Maybe on a different tack, one thing I’ve seen fail really badly — and I should flag that this is a case where the law of equal and opposite advice bites really hard, because for some students, this thing works really well — is making a really specific timetable with things in each of the slots, and then saying, “I’m going to stick to this exactly.”

Alex Lawsen: This can be really valuable when it works, but there is a failure mode that seems really important to be aware of — and I think the failure mode is bad enough and likely enough in many people that it’s like really, really worth scrapping the whole method if you are one of those people. And that failure mode looks like missing one of the tasks, and then that task becoming really aversive. Like in episode 100, you and Howie talk about “ugh fields” — there’s a thing where the first task can get into an ugh field.

Alex Lawsen: There’s another thing that can happen, which is that you don’t get all of the stuff done on the first day. So you decide I’m going to do all of the things I dropped on the first day and everything I planned for the second day on the second day. And then you’re probably not going to get all of those done, right? Because now you’re trying to do even more stuff. And so then on the third day, you try and do everything you missed from the first two days and all of the stuff on the third day. And then this can fail in a variety of ways, like just giving up on the whole thing, or like all of those things being stuck in the ugh field, or somewhere in between.

Alex Lawsen: But I guess the idea is like, if it’s going to be really, really costly to fail to stick to your timetable, consider making a timetable that has some flexibility in it. Like having some free zones, which are like, “I’m going to do some revision in this slot, but I haven’t decided what it is yet. Because if I haven’t managed any of the other things, I can put it in there.” Or having a timetable that looks like you’ve got blocked out times, but you’re going to choose what to do using the lists approach we talked about before, or something like that.

Alex Lawsen: And I should flag that there are a bunch of kids I’ve seen be really successful by writing really strict timetables, working out exactly how they’re going to do all the things, and then just doing all of the things one by one in order. And when this succeeds it works really well, because you get all the things done. But it seems worth flagging when this could go wrong.

Keiran Harris: Yeah, totally. Yeah. Might it also be useful to set aside time to revise your timetable? You wrote this thing up two weeks ago, and now two weeks later, it’s not the best timetable for you. Rather than feeling like you’re just locked into this thing forever.

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. That seems like a great idea. And I also think that this is the sort of thing that can be really good to do when you’re feeling those moments of inspiration, if you do indeed feel them. But it’s worth flagging that the thing you need to feel inspired by is really thinking analytically about what the right plan to make is, and then making that plan. The way that could go wrong is feeling really inspired and making a plan that corresponds with continuing to feel that inspired for the next two weeks. This would obviously be bad.

Alex Lawsen: But I think doing some troubleshooting, working out things like the idea you generated with putting in times to revise the timetable, or the idea I generated of having free slots that you just use to do any revision that you haven’t done up to that point, or other things — like working out exactly which things have to get done, and making sure those are in there. Which don’t fill up the whole timetable, but things like doing some prioritizing, printing out papers if you need to use physical papers ahead of time, finding the things that you are going to do, making the resources, making the Anki cards that you can review later. These things that are setting yourself up, so that when you are actually doing the things without that inspiration, they’re as easy as possible to get started with. These are things that are great to do with inspiration.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. Another thing you’ve mentioned to me is that sometimes people will fall into the habit of just playing the exam game all year long. Do you want to talk about that a bit?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. This also refers back to this thing of how I think it’s worth trying to understand the whole subject. Maybe what this looks like in class is that there’s something you’re trying to do — maybe the teacher’s explaining something, or asking you to think through a thing. And you are thinking, “But how much of this do I have to know for the exam?” Or, “What is the sentence I’m going to have to write down in the exam?”

Alex Lawsen: My claim is that early in the year, far away from exams, this is the wrong question to ask. Because actually it’s just much harder to memorize a bunch of disparate, unconnected facts that don’t have any relevance to you, each other, or real life than it is to form some cohesive understanding of the subject, and then work out, “I’m going to memorize these things because they’re going to help me tie my brain to big concepts. And I’m going to practice doing some exams.”

Alex Lawsen: Basically my claim is that all of this can come later. And the failure mode is if you don’t see the connections between the subject, and if you don’t see the value in the subject, and if you don’t actually understand the subject, then it’s actually just much harder to learn all of the stuff you need to, to answer all of the questions you need to in an exam. So that seems like a mistake.

Alex Lawsen: Maybe the one way that you should play the exam game all year round is actually if you have a flashcard setup all year round, then checking, “Is there anything here that I should just memorize?” My claim is that important vocabulary is in there for your subject. This is a great thing to ask teachers, like, “Is there a fact I have to know?” And this is different from an attitude of, “The only thing I have to know is the stuff I have to memorize for the exam.”

Alex Lawsen: But it may be that in your subject, there are just some definitions that you have to be able to regurgitate. Or it may be that there’s a procedure that you should follow frequently enough that it’s worth memorizing it. And if that is the case, then having that as a flashcard at the start of the year means you’ll probably have remembered it well before revision time, and you can dedicate your revision to other stuff. So I think that’s a way to set yourself up for success.

Keiran Harris: That’s great. Yeah. Were there any other bad approaches to learning you wanted to point out?

Alex Lawsen: One more is doing practice that isn’t deliberate, and that you don’t see a clear path to getting better from. Maybe this is just doing a bunch of questions without thinking that hard about it — so it could be like doing random questions from a textbook that feels productive. But because you’ve picked them “randomly” — I put air quotes in there — actually you’ve just picked the subject you’re already good at or something, because you can do those questions.

Alex Lawsen: It could even be like doing whole papers, but not spending any time working out whether you are getting any better, because you’re not actually marking the papers, or you’re marking the papers but every time you make a mistake, you’re like, “I hate mistakes,” and moving on. So I think the “deliberate” part of “deliberate practice” is important. And if you are doing some kind of practice and it’s not clear to you what the purpose of the practice is — and you can’t point to a specific thing you are expecting to improve by doing the practice — my suggestion is that it’s worth spending at least some time either working out what the purpose of the practice is. And if you still can’t find one, change the method of the practice, so you are clear about what the purpose is.

How to think about personal goals [01:48:12]

Keiran Harris: All right. So this is kind of a broad question, but how should students think about personal goals?

Alex Lawsen: Interestingly, we talked a bit about stuff I learned from poker earlier. I’m pretty sure my understanding of how to set goals is taken straight from a mental game coach called Jared Tendler, who has two books actually, called The Mental Game of Poker and The Mental Game of Poker 2, which I’m at least somewhat confident would be at least somewhat useful to read — even if you have never played poker and have no intention of playing poker.

Alex Lawsen: I think they’re probably more useful if you are doing some sort of sport that you think you’d benefit from a good mental game in. But anyway, the thing I stole from Jared is it’s something like it’s worth having some sort of goal that you actually care about. So maybe this is a goal that’s intrinsically valuable to you, and you actually care about achieving it. For me when I was at school, this was actually just understanding physics. I just really loved physics. I still do. And that was the goal for me. For some people it might be getting into a really good university. Maybe you’d be the first in your family to go to university, or the first in your family to go to this particular university. Or it could be getting perfect grades. These are fine things to shoot for — have something you’re shooting for.

Alex Lawsen: Then the next step is spending some time working out what things you should do in order to get to that, let’s call it a “terminal goal” or a “final goal” — and these I would explicitly call “process goals.” These might look like the sort of thing that you would have like per week or per month, and the idea is these are the things that you evaluate, whether or not you’ve done them. And then if you’ve chosen the process goals correctly, you don’t have to worry too much about how rapidly you are progressing towards your final goal. You can just be like, “Am I doing the week-by-week things that are going to get me there?” And then you have this much shorter feedback cycle, which seems good, of like, “Am I doing the things? If I’m doing the things, I’m making progress in the right direction.”

Alex Lawsen: So what could this look like? If your goal is to get into a top university, your process goals might look like doing all of your homework to a good standard, if you think that homework is indeed valuable. It could be spending some amount of time each week making Anki flashcards. It could be spending some amount of time each week talking to a friend of yours who’s also really interested in the same subjects. It would be things that seem like if you do that a lot, you’ll get much closer to the final thing.

Alex Lawsen: And I wouldn’t worry too much on a week-by-week or month-by-month timetable about like, “Am I any closer to getting into Oxford?” Or like, “Am I any closer to perfect grades?” Because this just seems really hard to evaluate, and all you’re going to do if you’re constantly worried about that is to go like, “No, I am no closer. Because I can’t see any progress.” So that seems like a good way of approaching stuff.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. You mentioned having perfect grades as being a reasonable goal there. My first instinct was that that is maybe too extreme — that I would worry about people having a goal like that, where now failure is like almost everything. Am I off-base there?

Alex Lawsen: I guess it depends on the realisticness of the goal or something. For what it’s worth, I don’t think perfect grades in school are intrinsically valuable or something. And this actually seems worth flagging — I’m glad you pushed me on this. It may be that getting perfect grades is an important instrumental goal to one of your next steps. It may be that there is a university that essentially you need to get perfect grades, or pretty close to perfect, in order to get into. And if that’s the case, and you really need to get there, it is reasonable to say, “I want to try and get as close as possible to perfect grades.”

Alex Lawsen: I should flag that perfect grades doesn’t actually necessarily mean like 100% on every paper, in fact. In the UK, perfect grades means doing above some threshold in one set of exams at the end of Year 13. And that’s literally it — nothing else to that point counts. And actually, maybe this is a good case to dig in on, where maybe the failure modes here would be like, “I want to have perfect grades at the end of Year 13. So every test and every homework I do before then must be perfect.” This seems terrible, because it’s just not going to happen. And then you’re going to feel bad.

Alex Lawsen: But maybe if you set process goals of like, “Have I learned a concrete thing, from looking over work that has been corrected each week?” And if you’ve had some work where you made a mistake and you are confident that you have learned something from that mistake, then that’s fine. And if you made no mistakes that week, then whatever, that’s obviously not failing to meet your goal, but doesn’t seem better than having learnt a thing from the concrete mistake. Yeah, maybe you could set that as a process goal.

Alex Lawsen: And that’s what I meant by maybe the thing you’re shooting for at the end of the year is this ridiculously high score on your final exams, but worrying each week about “Am I going to get a ridiculously high score on my final exams?” seems like a bad strategy. But that’s the thing I’m motivated to try and hit, and so these are the things I’m going to do on a week-by-week level to give me the best chance of hitting it. That seems like the distinction I want to draw with this framework.

Keiran Harris: Sure. Do you think it’s important to have short-term, medium-term, longer-term goals? Because I’m thinking of your goal of understanding physics: that seems great to me, but also it’s not the kind of thing that you’re going to stress out about having not achieved at the end of the year. Because obviously you haven’t completely understood physics at any point.

Keiran Harris: I’m wondering what you think about the goal of being like, “I want to get into a top university,” if you made that obviously like a vaguer but longer-term goal of like, “I want to have a meaningful career,” or something like that becomes your goal. And then obviously getting into a good university is going to be a step on that, but maybe it doesn’t seem quite so disastrous if that doesn’t work out.

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. I think this seems like the sort of thing that’s worth experimenting with. My personal preference is something like week-by-week goals, and then something I’m shooting at long term, and that’s approximately it. I find medium-term things kind of stressful and not that valuable. I can definitely imagine people for whom it would be very useful to have like one really long-term thing, and something on the scale of months, and something on the scale of years, and something on the scale of weeks. And then like some week-by-week stuff or potentially some daily stuff.

Alex Lawsen: It feels like this is a great thing to experiment with while you’re at school. Like, do you want to have a monthly check-in with yourself or a six-month check-in with yourself? Or is just week-by-week on its own enough? Or is weekly on its own not frequent enough, and you should have some really small thing that you feel like you’re doing each day? Maybe reviewing the flashcards you’ve made so far each day seems pretty useful. That’s actually a daily goal I have at the moment.

Keiran Harris: I wonder if it’s useful talking about this a little bit. Part of being in school is just kind of figuring out what you’re like, I think. Where it’s like, throughout this conversation you’ve often used yourself as an example saying like, “Oh, I am X,” or “I have problems with this.” And maybe when you’re 15, 16, 17, you just don’t know that yet. So yeah, how valuable is it to just be thinking about things in terms of just learning about who you are?

Alex Lawsen: I think probably extremely. And maybe it’s worth using myself as an example here and pointing at some things that I did not realize about myself while I was at school that might have been useful to realize, and made me much happier or something. So when I was at school, I found organizing and forward planning extremely difficult and extremely stressful. Actually, this is still true. And I think at school, I didn’t realize this. I didn’t realize that these things and a few related things — like thinking forward and making explicit plans — were unusually difficult for me. And certainly my self-image was not such that I was comfortable thinking that anything was unusually difficult for me. It was quite important to my identity, my relationship to myself at that point, that I was really smart or something.

Alex Lawsen: So I managed to do this ridiculous reverse engineering of like, “Yeah, I’m just not going to try very hard at anything, and not really do any more work that I can possibly get away with.” And the nice thing about this is that when I do noticeably worse than some of my peers, it doesn’t mean I’m not as smart as them, right? Because I just didn’t try as hard. And the funny thing is, when you look back in your 20s and 30s at the results you got in school, it is not in fact reassuring to say, “Oh, it’s okay because I didn’t try that hard.” I think actually a lot of what was going on was I did find some things hard and should probably have just asked for help with them. Especially about organizing my time and organizing my work.

Alex Lawsen: And actually I think it would’ve been really valuable to notice this earlier. Because what happened is I got to university, and not doing any work was no longer sufficient to survive, and I had very little understanding of how to make myself do stuff. And that was pretty hard. I’m not sure exactly what exploration would’ve looked like in this case, but it does feel like finding out where your strengths are and where your weaknesses are. And then internalizing that having some things you are worse at than other people is fine, and worth knowing about and asking for help with sooner rather than later.

Alex Lawsen: And then also recognizing your strengths and playing to them a bit. Maybe that’s one frame of exploration we haven’t really talked about yet: Is there some stuff that you are unusually good at? And is there some stuff that you find unusually hard? And what can you do about each of those things?

Keiran Harris: Yeah. Do you want to expand on that?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. Maybe there’s something around preferences of working habits as well. So I really enjoy interacting with people. It’s why I chose this job. And so I think for me, having a group of friends who are interested in the same things as me and wanted to talk about them was probably the reason that I managed to survive doing very little work for so long. Because actually, I had this image in my head of, “Oh, you’re just not trying really hard, because you’re not doing the homework.” But I was just spending multiple hours a day talking about physics and maths that I was really interested in with my friends, who were also really interested in it — and this is in fact still homework, in any meaningful sense. It’s just not the one I was asked to do. Actually I was just doing loads of practice, but not noticing it was practice.

Alex Lawsen: But it seems possible that this is not true for everyone. Maybe finding out what work environment do you need, and simple things like technological fixes. Like if noise is a really big deal, have you tried buying noise-canceling headphones? Or listening to music that doesn’t have any lyrics in it. For me, music with lyrics is just catastrophic — it just distracts me because I listen to them. But music without lyrics, I can just kind of zone out, but it stops any other noise coming in. So playing with physical setup and technology, this sort of thing. What makes it easy for you to work? Similarly, what makes it difficult for you to work? And if there’s stuff that makes it difficult for you to work, are there ways of removing that?

How to prep for Oxford or Cambridge interviews [01:58:49]

Keiran Harris: Do you have specific advice for preparing for interviews for getting into top schools?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. I can say a little bit. And I think I should flag extremely hard here that I’m going to be talking about the UK system, and maths and physics only. And for people that don’t have that in their mind, maybe it’s worth skipping or something. My impression of entrance procedures in the US is that some of the advice in this section is like exactly wrong. So this does seem pretty hard based on different admission systems in different countries, and I’m very familiar with one and had quite a lot of success helping students with one. But it doesn’t generalize. So that seems important.

Keiran Harris: Yep. We should have chapters in this episode. So yeah, you can go ahead and skip ahead to the next chapter.

Alex Lawsen: Nice. Okay. So let’s say you are applying to do maths or physics — I’m just going to say physics, but I think most of this does generalize at least somewhat to maths — and you’re applying to Oxford or Cambridge. So the first thing to know is that there will be a test that you have to sit. For anything in the space of physics, engineering, natural sciences, and then also maths at Oxford, this test is taken before you have an interview. For Cambridge maths, it’s taken at the end of your A Levels, but most of the other advice still applies. This test doesn’t require you to know a whole bunch of new material. What it does require you to do is be able to solve problems really well. Solving problems really well is a skill that you can practice, and it is a skill that to some extent can be explicitly taught.

Alex Lawsen: I think it is kind of upsetting and harmful that there is some impression or meme floating around in the discourse of like, “Oh, these tests have been nicely designed, so that preparing for them doesn’t help you that much. So don’t worry about doing that much preparation.” I basically think this is just false, and I guess “that much” is poorly specified — so it could be completely true or completely false, depending on what you mean by “that much.” But it actually seems like if you are the sort of person that will get into one of these universities, one of these subjects, then doing a bunch of hard problems that are really interesting and quite fun should be enjoyable to you. So it is not that costly to do lots of preparation for these exams.

Alex Lawsen: My claim is it makes you quite a lot better. I have seen students improve pretty substantially in the course of a few months by doing lots of preparation for these exams. And this seems good. I actually think that, at least in the case of physics, these exams are designed well enough to test useful physics problem-solving skills. So preparing for them is actually substantially more useful than preparing for exams usually is, because essentially, doing well in these exams is correlated somewhat strongly with useful skills in physics.

Alex Lawsen: So my claim is that it should be somewhat fun and actually not a waste of time to do lots of preparation for these exams. And then the other thing to say is that doing well in these exams and then doing well in an interview — which is essentially just a verbal version of these exams, where someone asks you some maths or physics problems and then asks you to solve them in front of them — preparing for that skill is not a waste of time, because that skill is really useful if you’re going to go and study that subject.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. That all makes sense. I wanted to ask you about the fact that this is clearly a zero-sum thing. So let’s say that if you hadn’t helped anyone out, Annie was going to get into a certain course in university. But Susie asked for your help, and then as a result of your help, she gets in and then Annie doesn’t get in. So you have helped one kid get in and indirectly caused another kid to not get into this course. How do you feel about that?

Alex Lawsen: To be honest, pretty mixed. I think on balance, fine. And I’ll try and gesture at why. But I think it’s an important thing to flag that it does seem really sad that there are just many kids who are really excited by physics or maths, and really good at it, and really want to go to one of these two schools where there aren’t that many places — and a lot of them will fail.

Alex Lawsen: And actually, before I mention why I’m kind of okay with the things I did and also okay with giving some generic advice now, it seems also worth flagging that the application process is just very noisy, and I don’t think it selects that well for the best students. I think it selects much better than many other systems people have tried. For example, I think doing well on these tests and interviews is a substantially better indicator of whatever you want to call “talent” than a personal statement that could have been mostly written by someone else — and even if it was written entirely by you, it’s just not that predictive of how much you actually like physics or whatever.

Alex Lawsen: Having said that, one of the best physicists I ever taught — if not the best — did not get into Oxford, and just should have, basically. I can point to many students I helped prepare who did end up getting in, who were just on many measures much weaker than this student. And I don’t want to give too many details, because even though I think there’s a very low probability they listen to this, I don’t want to make a whole deal out of this one kid or anything.

Keiran Harris: Sure.

Alex Lawsen: But the things that ended up going wrong on the day were out of their control completely. And actually, even when there’s nothing specific you could point to that went wrong, test performance varies, and people are differently good at different bits of the subject. And then the test will have some harder questions on some subjects and some other harder questions on other subjects. It’s just not the case that if you take the 200 people that didn’t get in and the 200 people that did get in, that all 200 of the people who got in are much better than all 200 of people who didn’t. It’s just much more noisy than that. I think this is really worth flagging because if you are one of the people that ends up on the bad luck side of the distribution, it just feels terrible, and it feels very personal, and it feels like it was something you did wrong. And I think that’s really sad.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. So do you feel like in your helping, do you feel like you are making it more likely that the kids who are actually most suited to this career are getting in? I mean, because obviously it could go both ways, where maybe you’ve got a really talented physicist who was just barely going to get in by not practicing for this, but because you’ve helped people who are a little bit less talented to be really great at this interview process, they get in ahead of that person.

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. I think this seems possible. The context of the school I was teaching at is that it was not a fee-paying school, but it selected quite heavily for mathematical ability at age 16. And frankly, if you have the sort of privileges that are associated with going to a fee-paying school, it is easier to do well on a test of mathematical ability at age 16. So where does this net out? I think some of the students who I ended up helping would have been completely fine anyway, and I was giving an additional advantage to them when they already had many advantages over other students. I do think, however, that maybe a majority of the students I ended up helping — had they not had the sort of help that I was able to provide — had a substantial disadvantage compared to students who went to elite fee-paying schools, where much support is available.

Alex Lawsen: My difficulty or uncertainty around this, however, is there’s also a whole bunch of students who were applying — who, because they lived in the wrong place, or because they did badly on one test when they were 16, or because they didn’t want to go to a school where everyone was doing the same four subjects… Which is like a totally reasonable decision, by the way, and I would’ve made that one. All of those students, I was not helping. And it seems like many of those students were more disadvantaged than the students I was helping.

Alex Lawsen: So it’s actually not clear in what direction I moved the needle. I do kind of think that everyone having access to competent preparation help and the encouragement that you can actually just practice… And, to be clear, all of the preparation I did was basically saying, “This is a thing you can practice and get better at. Go fucking practice and get better at it.” That’s it, there’s no secret. If you are good at physics, you’ll like this and it’ll be fun. And then you’ll get in, with the caveat that there’s a bunch of luck involved.

Alex Lawsen: Actually, I think everyone should have that message. My sincere belief is that everyone should be told that you should just try as hard as you can to get good at this thing. And if you’re really not enjoying the process of trying hard to get good at it, this is maybe a mistake. Because trying to get good at it is quite similar to studying at one of these places — if you’re not enjoying it now, this is maybe not the right path for you. The world where everyone gets that advice seems strictly better than the world where no one does. And certainly better than the world where only a few people do. So I guess I was like, at least directionally moving closer to the world I think is best. But it’s not obvious it’s monotonic. So it’s not clear that I was actually helping on the margin.

Keiran Harris: Sure. I mean, it’s kind of a nice thing about this podcast we’re doing right now, where this is in theory available to everyone for free. So possibly if this was shared widely, you can get this message out in a way that you couldn’t have when you were teaching.

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. This seems possible. It seems more likely some very small subset of the people who are applying listen to it. And it seems at least somewhat likely that that subset is already substantially advantaged over the general population. But I hope this ends up not being the case.

Keiran Harris: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Alex’s algorithm [02:07:59]

Keiran Harris: Did you have any concrete ways of approaching these really hard problems?

Alex Lawsen: What I ended up doing was reverse engineering the process that I thought I was going through when I was approaching a really hard physics problem. I did this by also reading some research on how other people tend to break down problems. And I ended up with a four-step process that doesn’t seem that useful to describe on the podcast. But I’ve written a document about it that we can link to.

Alex Lawsen: I usually would, in the first session or two of preparation, teach my students what this process was and how to apply it. And then all of the rest of the sessions were practicing — applying this process to a whole bunch of different hard problems. I’ll maybe also put in the document a list of sources of hard problems, other than the actual papers you’re sitting. Because as we mentioned, we want more specific practice to come just before the exam, so having a wide variety of things to try and apply the framework to, if you are starting to prepare really early, seems good.

When to start thinking about your career seriously [02:08:55]

Keiran Harris: Beautiful. Okay. So we’re almost wrapping up here. But I want to ask, for students who have made it this far into the episode, they might be pretty interested in the stuff we do at 80,000 Hours. Do you have thoughts on how early people should start thinking about their careers really seriously?

Alex Lawsen: Yeah. I have some fairly weakly held views here, and I think they maybe don’t match up with everyone else on the team. So I guess the whole thing has just been “random things Alex says that might be true” — but this section is especially random things Alex says that might be true.

Alex Lawsen: I think that it seems really important to have something you’re shooting for. And it seems kind of wonderful to me that there are some kids who I’ve met, who I’ve taught, and then also some kids I’ve met through other avenues, who have the thing that they’re really excited about trying to help the world. I think that’s amazing and I think it can be a really powerful motivator. So that seems great.

Alex Lawsen: There’s also a thing where the question of “How can we do the most good?” is just unbelievably fascinating, and to be honest, it was just a large part of my motivation — and still is actually, just in my day-to-day life. It’s just really interesting trying to think about how to help people who are interested in having a career that’s really meaningful, in the sense of meaningfully helpful to other people. This is still fascinating to me. That can be a really powerful driving force.

Alex Lawsen: It seems worth flagging that much of the advice we’ve written on the website, and much of the advice that we have put in the podcast — which was some of my first information about effective altruism, and I really strongly recommend and have loved since well before I worked here — lots of this is aimed at slightly older people. One thing to flag here is that the younger you are, the greater the value of exploration, and the greater the value of preserving option value.

Alex Lawsen: What this means is, it seems great to have this high-level inspiration, and it seems great to be thinking really hard and getting really excited about trying to do good. But I would somewhat strongly urge young students listening to this to not fixate on one career super hard right now — especially as it’s quite likely they might be five, maybe 10, maybe even 15 or 20 years out from actually doing the career, and really feeling that now is the time they’re having a lot of impact. So the world might look a lot different then, and the sorts of things that seem really valuable to do might look a lot different then.

Alex Lawsen: And so building up a pretty useful skillset — maybe building up some academic credentials, maybe building up an understanding of a subject that you find really interesting and seems at least plausibly useful, and then also building up a good knowledge of the sorts of things you do very well and the sorts of things you find more difficult — these things seem really, really useful to do. And trying to follow the question of like “How should I do the most good?” wherever it leads you — this also seems really useful to do. But I would be somewhat concerned about you looking at our priority paths and picking one of them and going like, “This is the thing I’m going to do,” and spending the next 10 years shooting only at that.

Keiran Harris: Yeah, that definitely seems right to me. So maybe we can upgrade this from “random things that Alex thinks” to the “random thing that Alex and Keiran think, but it still may not be correct, according to the rest of the team.”

Alex Lawsen: Nice.

80,000 Hours and the effective altruism community [02:12:15]

Keiran Harris: What’s the earliest age where you’d be comfortable with someone going through the materials we have on the 80,000 Hours website, or even applying for advising?

Alex Lawsen: It seems really hard and maybe incorrect to have an age cutoff here. I think there’s some weak version of this, which is if the ideas are really interesting to you, then by all means explore them out of interest. And if you think it’s really important to do good, and then the actual object-level ideas are just not really gripping you and seem kind of technical and obscure and far away, then maybe drop it for a few years.

Keiran Harris: Yeah.

Alex Lawsen: That seems fine. I think most of my experiences teaching 16- to 19-year-olds, my guess is that 16-year-olds who are excited about this will get a reasonable amount of value out of many of our podcast episodes. My guess is they will get a reasonable amount of value out of some of the books that we often recommend. So I would put Doing Good Better by William MacAskill in this category. I would put The Alignment Problem by Brian Christian, who we mentioned before, in this category. I would put The Precipice by Toby Ord probably in this category too. I’m less confident about the appropriateness of that particular book for 16-year-olds. And I don’t have any negative evidence that’s making me worried here. But I don’t have a strong reason to point to that book being particularly great for kids of that age, whereas I have some evidence for the other two.

Alex Lawsen: Other ones that have been floating around for ages and seem really good: Lots of my students — especially students interested in economics — have absolutely loved Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. This seems like a really interesting book to read, especially if you are interested in econ, but maybe haven’t yet gone like, “How can econ actually help people?” For many of my students, this was like something of a spark, where they were like, “This can help people. We can do stuff here?” Yeah.

Alex Lawsen: It’s somewhat regrettable to me that I don’t have a thing I can point to on climate change, which is like these books, because I know lots of the students I speak to are really concerned about climate change. I think there’s a couple of interesting podcast episodes on climate. Maybe that’s a reasonable place to start. Maybe this is mentioned a bit in The Precipice, and that maybe updates me a bit towards it being good, but I would love it if there was a book on climate change that I could recommend.

Alex Lawsen: But yeah, I think maybe reading a book, maybe reading some of those books — we’ll put links to all of them in the description — some of these might be a nice way of exploring how excited you are by the ideas.

Keiran Harris: Yeah. Do you have any different intuitions around what age seems appropriate to try and immerse yourself in a community like the effective altruism community? Rather than just reading these books.

Alex Lawsen: I guess it depends what you mean by “immerse yourself in a community.” Like we mentioned earlier, the value of having people excited about the same things as you — like if you’ve got some friends that are also excited about this, maybe read one of these books together and talk about the ideas with them. This seems great.

Alex Lawsen: Lots of universities have student EA groups. This seems like a really wonderful thing. And if your university has one, go ahead and join it. If your university doesn’t have one, consider starting it. The Centre for Effective Altruism has some support for people wanting to start university groups. And then also there is just lots of material floating around, and actually, I think books are just a fairly good way to start.

Alex Lawsen: I don’t have a strong view about what age is too young to start engaging with the broader community, maybe online. But I would want to be somewhat careful about recommending it to particularly young students, because it’s a community primarily composed of adults. And that is just somewhat risky and also somewhat uninteresting for, I don’t know, a 14-year-old to come and be part of.

Keiran Harris: Yeah.

Alex Lawsen: So if you’re a student, finding other students to talk about the ideas with seems very easy to recommend. Finding a book that is interesting and talking to other people who have read that book seems very easy to recommend. Seeing how much of the podcast interests you and listening to the episodes that seem interesting also seems pretty easy to recommend. I don’t want to confidently recommend more involvement in the community than that, which is not me flagging “You definitely shouldn’t.” When you are hanging around with a bunch of adults as a kid, there’s things to consider.

Keiran Harris: Do you have any advice for a young person who, maybe they love The 80,000 Hours Podcast, maybe they’re really into these ideas — they’re reading these books, and they find that’s the thing that really motivates them, much more than their schoolwork. Maybe they have this issue where they love to just immerse themselves in these kind of things that you and I talk about. But if it’s the case that they really need to just get good grades, maybe it actually is becoming a problem. Do you have thoughts on that? Whether they should maybe even delay getting really immersed in the material?

Alex Lawsen: I think it kind of heavily depends on how possible it is for them to really see instrumental goals as being valuable. Maybe let’s talk about what instrumental goals are, because I think I’ve used the term a couple of times. So the idea here is an instrumental goal is a goal that, if it didn’t have any effects, you wouldn’t care about, but you care about because of its effects. And so actually, getting good grades in school is for many people in this category — where actually, if you couldn’t tell anyone the grades, and no one knew what they were, and you just didn’t really care about the subject, then doing well would just not really matter at all.

Alex Lawsen: Getting good grades gets you access to good universities and gets you access to good education. And frankly, even at the time, getting good grades probably in many cases gets you better access to your teachers, who think you are smarter and think you are worth their time — this is not fully true always, but does seem at least possible in some cases. And so one thing you could do is go like, “I’m going to work out what’s going to be instrumentally valuable for me, what’s going to set me up to do a bunch of good later, and I’m going to try and do that.”

Alex Lawsen: One example I’m going to throw out here is if you have any interest in programming at all, it does just seem like getting really, really good at programming is robustly useful for many paths you could consider. Obviously one thing we are currently interested in and excited about is alignment research, and broadly the field of AI safety or AI governance. But it feels like having really good programming skills is useful for a whole bunch of stuff beyond that, and also just seems unlikely to get that much less useful in the next few years. Though I should flag that forecasting anything a few years out is kind of hard.

Keiran Harris: Cool. Well, I think this has been pretty great, but as a final question: If you had to just completely change careers and somehow you became completely indifferent to making the world a better place, what would be the most self-indulgent or most enjoyable career for you to pursue instead?

Alex Lawsen: This is kind of hard, because I think every job I’ve ever done, which, to be clear, is basically two jobs — I’ve taught in a variety of forms and I’ve taught a variety of things and I’ve done some sports coaching and tuition and whatever — but basically I’ve done teaching and then I’ve worked on the one-on-one team at 80,000 Hours. And much of my personal enjoyment — in the sense where enjoyment is more than just precisely fun, but it’s like fulfillment and satisfaction and meaning — lots of this just comes from helping people.

Alex Lawsen: And as much as I’m pretty motivated in the abstract sense by the really important feeling that people who have not yet been born should actually get to exist, and huge amounts of suffering would be really important to avoid — these like things do matter to me, and I care a lot about them, and think a lot about them — but actually on the day-to-day level, the stuff that gives me real personal satisfaction in my work is directly helping the people around me and in front of me. So the people I talk to now that I’m on the one-on-one team, and the people I taught when I was in school.

Alex Lawsen: So it seems kind of likely to me that if I stopped caring about the “big picture” stuff, if I stopped caring about the long-run impacts of my actions, I would probably do something kind of similar if I didn’t have to care about money at all. I might work somewhat fewer hours — probably quite a lot fewer hours — and maybe would be teaching still. Maybe I’d be doing some sports coaching as well.

Alex Lawsen: I have a friend who’s a professional climber and climbing coach, and I love climbing and would like to spend a lot of my time doing that. I think I actually would probably not want to spend all my time doing that — it might become less enjoyable. Honestly, what this looks like probably is working a little bit on the one-on-one team, a few hours a week, and also teaching. I taught this class for the last years that I was at the school, which was all of the things that I wish I’d been taught before I did physics at university, but weren’t in the A Level, and I just put them all together. And the thing is, all of these had a pretty heavy maths requirement, so I was only able to teach it because all of the kids in the school were studying further maths. So I’d probably teach that course.

Alex Lawsen: I’d maybe work on the one-on-one team a bit, and teach that course, and do a bit of sports coaching. And what this is gesturing at is this is just doing a bunch of things I find really interesting, and they all involve work with other people. And also I get to switch context a lot, so I don’t have to do the same thing that much. I think that if I was really able to not care about the long-run impact of my actions in the future, I’d probably be much less stressed with all of these things, and that seems like I’d be pretty happy. I don’t know if that’s the very best life, but that seems pretty good.

Keiran Harris: All right. Well, this has been really wonderful. I’m just so glad you were happy to do this. Thank you so much, Alex.

Alex Lawsen: Oh, it’s been a real pleasure. I’m still not sure any of it has been even slightly valuable, but…

Keiran Harris: [laughs] I think it has. I think at least one or two things have been pretty valuable.

Alex’s key takeaways [02:22:13]

Alex Lawsen: Hey, Alex here. So after the episode, I think Keiran and a couple other colleagues did manage to convince me that some of what I said might actually not have been totally useless. And so I thought it seemed worth briefly trying to come up with a couple of key takeaways, given that this episode is pretty long, and goes in a kind of roundabout way, because it’s mostly just me and Keiran chatting.

So what I came up with is something like: Just try a bunch of stuff and see what works. This seems pretty good, especially early on. There is just a bunch of value you can get out of doing a bunch of experiments, and getting stuff wrong, and then seeing what works. So yeah, maybe consider this whole episode as a list of things to try. Try some of them, and if they don’t work, throw them away. But if they do work, maybe this is something you can use for a long time.

Then something else is: You can just get a ton better at stuff by really intentionally practicing it. And I think I do make this point a couple of times. So intentionally practicing works best when you have clear success criteria, and also when the thing you’re practicing is the right level of challenge for you. Basically like if you want to get better at something, just try and do that thing. That seems pretty key.

And then lastly, just this idea of: Think carefully about what you want to get out of a situation. Like, what are you shooting for? What’s your main goal? Really considering that question might lead you to act in quite a different way in a particular situation, or use quite a different strategy, as the one you would have defaulted to, had you not been considering, “What’s my actual goal here?”

Maybe then the last thing to say — and potentially this explains some of my jumping about between different ideas — is that, as some of you might have suspected when Keiran and I were talking about things I personally found hard when I was at school, since this episode, I’ve actually been diagnosed with ADHD.

And so maybe there’s some final lesson, which is: If you find stuff difficult, maybe just ask for help with it. Maybe ask someone else if there’s some way of you finding the thing less difficult. Because for me, it took a bunch of friends and colleagues and my partner really supporting me along the way. But it’s made a massive difference to my life already, having a diagnosis and being able to access treatment for something which turns out I’ve been finding hard for a really long time.

If you’ve made it all the way to the end, and you’re wondering whether it might be interesting to speak to me or one of my colleagues about how to do good with your own career — we’re looking for more people to apply to speak with us one on one right now. We’ll put a link in the show notes but you can also just go to our website and click on the big button saying “Get 1-1 advice”.

All right, 80k After Hours is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Audio mastering and technical editing for this episode was by Ryan Kessler. Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links, including a couple of documents I wrote, are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.

Looking forward to seeing some of you soon.

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