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Making Smaller Circles with Visual Design


Visual design is a field drastically under-supplied with good learning resources. This could be of absolutely no relevance to you, but it was crucial to me when I started trying to learn it systematically. In that attempt, I came across The Art of Learning and gradually got much better at learning; along the way, I picked up some lessons that may turn out to have relevance for you. Writing about them all would fill a booklet, so in this article I’ll only give you some thoughts on the principle from The Art of Learning that has been the most consistently helpful to me at every level – Making smaller circles.

My initial use of Making smaller circles was for learning the macro from the micro. In my case, that meant designing the least complex element that requires the same kind of choices as a full-scale work (such as a printed page or webpage, for example). Using web design as an example, the humble webpage button is a good choice for this, since designing one entails decisions about typography (the design of text), color and layout; for the same reasons, a paragraph with a title works well. After designing many iterations of those basic elements, I was surprised how considerably my grasp of the fundamental principles was strengthened: earlier, I thought these elements would be too trivial to focus on. But I found that my workflow sped up greatly and a slowness I hadn’t even been aware of had disappeared – as if I’d been wading through molasses and suddenly broke free. I found the takeaway for learning abundantly clear: there is no “too trivial” element of the whole to focus on.

After many exercises involving just one element, I moved on to small-scale pieces consisting of a few elements, as a way of probing the understanding of my principles in a controlled environment. While doing these exercises, Tim Ferriss’ thought from The 4-Hour Chef that “the burden on working memory is what makes something easy or hard” kept popping into my head. It seemed absolutely true to me the first time I’d read it – but now I felt I understood it on a visceral level. A better understanding of fundamental principles also led me to appreciate design in a new way: a beautiful design now seemed to be simply one whose elements are in harmony. This isn’t a new idea, but I couldn’t appreciate it viscerally or experience it influencing my work before I’d refined my understanding of the key principles to a finer level. I should note that grasping what “being in harmony” means for any group of elements is arguably the stuff of being a great designer – it wasn’t that I achieved this, but I found the mark to aim at.

I eventually realized that this approach made me better attuned to the interplay of various elements. In many cases, a good design has a fractal-like quality: its parts mirror the whole. I now regularly work “from the inside out”, planning a piece not from its frame or the most visually dominant feature, but from the element that “carries most of the load” of conveying the message. This is analogous to planning a story from the most important element (the one carrying most of the narrative load) outward – which could be the characters, the setting, or the story arc, or some other element. Why this approach? Because I find the characteristics of this element determine most of the other relationships between elements, and these are what makes up the entire work. In many cases, these relationships mirror those within the main element – and those of the main element with secondary elements may mirror those between elements further out, and so on. This is how the work gets the fractal-like quality I spoke about earlier. In this way, using Making smaller circles for learning was a stepping stone for using it to learn about the structure of a full work. Broad usefulness of this kind, at any degree of proficiency, is the reason I’ve found this principle so universally helpful.

Winning in New Ways


It has been about 6 months since I have completed reading The Art of Learning. Josh’s story really got me thinking because his story is very similar to mine. My journey started off as an elementary school student with some big shoes to fill. I come from a family of athletes, swimmers to be exact. My grandfather competed in backstroke events at VMI, my parents met on the swim team at the University of Georgia, and my mother competed for Canada at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. To make a long story short, I was born with the swimming gene.

However, the idea of competitiveness was something that I had to learn. When I first started swimming, I participated because I loved being in the water and goofing around with my friends. My parents have always believed in nurturing my love for the water, so we spent every summer up in Canada visiting relatives. My coaches always thought my parents were crazy because they never made me train while we were away. Those summers were the best gifts that my parents could have ever given me.

As I grew older, my parents understood that it was time to shorten our visits and become more focused on swimming, only at my request. Throughout high school, I became extremely dedicated to the sport and found success in my hard work. I became the Georgia State Champion in the 500 yard Freestyle and achieved All-American status. Later that year, I signed to compete at NC State in the distance freestyle events. I graduated from high school at the top of my swimming game and excited to compete at a NCAA division I level.

When I first got to school the training and schoolwork became much more difficult. I started training twice a day and started lifting weights, something that I had not done in high school. I also had to adapt to being coached by new people and getting to know my new teammates. With all of the added stress, my body had a difficult time keeping up. A few months into school, I caught pneumonia and had to take a few weeks off. I eased back into swimming around December and I knew that I was behind with the training. In order to get back into peak shape, I began training harder than ever, but my body still couldn’t keep up. One month later, I was in the emergency room with a severe respiratory infection. With the rest of my freshman season in the bucket, I was not off to a good start and my confidence knew it.

Going into my sophomore year, things did not get better. My body continued to succumb to respiratory problems and my coaches started to become frustrated. I, however, became my harshest critic. I couldn’t understand how I had gone from State Champion to not even being able to make the travel team. My confidence was at all all-time low and I began to hate swimming. It wasn’t fun anymore. It’s a crazy feeling, losing something that has always been your passion.

At the end of my sophomore season, I knew that it was time for me to retire from the sport. I was no longer excited about competing and I didn’t enjoy practice anymore. With my new-found freedom, I was excited to enjoy my last two years of college. I changed my major from Animal Science to Education and I was excited to explore my new life. At the beginning of my junior year I started to have different problems. I would show up to the gym to workout and would never enjoy myself. I hated being there because it reminded me of my swimming life. I didn’t feel good about myself because I was no longer in “good shape” and I was afraid of reaching hard levels because I didn’t want to get sick again. Exercise always reminded me of pain and I began to stay away from it all together.

At the end of my junior year, my professor handed my class The Art of Learning to read over the summer. She told us to read the book and just shoot her a quick email when we finished. As I was reading, I began to really relate to Josh’s story. He had managed to put all of my feelings into writing. He had chosen to leave something that had great meaning to him. Not only that but he had learned how to ignite passion into something new, how to make things exciting. After finishing the book in three days, I began a summer-long experiment: I was going to figure out how to like exercising again.

What I learned from Josh and my earlier days of swimming was that I needed to start slowly. I didn’t want to just throw myself into something because the overwhelming feeling would not be helpful. So I decided to take hour-long walks in the afternoons. No running, no intervals, no time standards; just walking. I would sometimes go by myself or with a few friends and I would just enjoy being outside. I did this for a few weeks and began to feel great because I was being healthier and it wasn’t too difficult. This was when I decided that I would make things more challenging, but not by too much. So I set a goal of being able to run one mile without stopping. I found that the challenge was difficult at the time but it began to get easier and easier. I was beginning to have fun with exercise again!

With the summer coming to an end, I was pleased with my results. I was able to run four miles without stopping and I began to practice yoga for stress-relief. However, when school began again things started to get harder. I wasn’t able to keep up with my strict summer regiment, but I never let things fall into shambles. The fall was a learning experience. I was doing well in the classroom and I still found time for exercise. I can honestly say that I did not train at NCAA division I level, but I did enough to satisfy myself and that is what I am excited to build upon. This past Thanksgiving I ran my first-ever four mile Turkey Trot and I finished with my chin held high. It was, and still is, a difficult journey that I am handling to this day.

The next question is, how does this enhance my teaching abilities? Although “teaching” is the name of my profession, “learning” and “understanding” are what the profession is all about. My experience with The Art of Learning has taught me that the concept of “learning” and “education” is an on-going journey. There will be good days and there will be bad days. What will you make of them? Learning to find comfort in exercise was something that has plagued me for a long time because of how overwhelmed I felt. When I was able to break it apart and take my time, I realized that I was able to really enjoy the activity and the whole experience. This approach is central to my educational philosophy now. Currently, I am a middle grades student teacher in an American Social Studies classroom. Instead of throwing big concepts at my students, I plan on starting small. When I am teaching I want them to find an aspect of history that they relate to so that they start to become more immersed on their own. When we start to hit on the larger topics and ideas, they will have a point of reference if they become confused or overwhelmed

All in all, I can say that this has been the most difficult piece that I have had to write in my four years of college because this story has made me who I am today. The Art of Learning is a book that will always be in the back of my mind when I am trying to understand and grow with my middle school students. By starting small and building upon new interests, my goal is to make my students into life-long learners.

The Art of Teaching

Guest Blogger: Nick Rubinfier

Something that every teacher must face at some point is the inevitable interpretation that his or her job is one that is not really a highly qualified profession. We have all heard the saying “those who can’t do, teach” and realize that there is a belief out there that teachers become educators because they couldn’t find success in some more “real” field. And even when the person outside the field looks in and accepts that the job is one “I could never do,” it is often quickly followed with, “I just don’t have the patience for kids.” Again, the implication being that the hard part of being a teacher is having patience, not skill.

When I read The Art of Learning I found myself understanding how wrong it is to look at teaching as anything other than a highly skilled profession. I suppose those who ‘can’t do’ can become teachers, but they won’t be anything but really bad teachers. When reading in The Art of Learning Josh’s description of professional athletes and champion chess players (and in my mind I added doctors and commercial jet pilots whose skills can mean the difference between life and death), I could see how the skills I have run absolutely parallel.

In the educator-as-artist role I need to constantly fine-tune the lessons I teach and must adjust for the unique needs of all the students looking to me to lead them to the knowledge they are seeking. To truly teach well I must be absolutely present. Like Josh “seeing” moves ahead or like Capt. Sullenberger landing a plane safely in the Hudson, I am constantly slowing down time to bring to each and every student that which they need at that moment to make the discoveries which will empower them. I see that when I am at the top of my form I am that extremely skilled professional, and though no one will live to die in my classroom, the life of learning of my students can weigh precariously in my hands. It would seem impossible that I reach 30 students at a time, differentiating the lesson to suit their complex and individual needs while engaging them, making it fun, and allowing them to take ownership of the learning. And yet, that is exactly what I do.


What I have found in Josh’s analysis of his story and the process of reaching a higher level of performance is a way to look at my life as an educator not as a job of manual labor but as an art form that requires going deep—a professional job that in Josh’s words requires being present, slowing down time, making use of adversity, finding a zone, and putting it all together.

My copy of The Art of Learning is well worn. I go back to it time and again, not just to remind me that my job is an art form and a serious profession, but to help me continue to grow as a learner and a facilitator of learning. Books like this are a gift for they  tell you a story that gives you a new perspective about how we live and show you ways to understand your own story and to tell it to the world by living it better.

ADHD and The Art of Learning

Guest Blogger: Rob Hanly

Rob Hanly, a lifestyle architect from Sydney, Australia, blogs about his struggles with ADHD and how The Art of Learning helped him focus on the essence and details of his work.

Making Smaller Circles

“I’m smarter than this!”

Not long after I turned 12, these words started ringing in my head after every assessment like the buzzing of a mosquito late at night. It was intrusive, a signal of something I couldn’t control.

During my younger years at school, I’d constantly been at the high end of the bell curve – my marks were high and my achievements were constant. I was told I was smart and could do whatever I wanted, and I believed it.

When I was 9, I moved schools and a year later, I was placed in the top streamed class for my grade. That was the end of an era.

Little by little, my marks slipped further and further downward. Every assessment marked another occasion of feeling let down by my smarts and more and more out of control. Everything seemed to be spinning towards an unavoidable fall.bored

When I was 16 I decided that I needed to stop drawing in the back of the classroom and find a way to concentrate. Over the course of the next few months, taking me to the age of 17, I saw a counselor; educational consultant; and finally, a psychologist who diagnosed me as having ADHD. At last there was an explanation for my inability to concentrate in class and my slipping marks.

After taking the prescribed medication, my marks started to go up. I was working more regularly on my own and with a tutor and rapidly moved up the ranks in my classes. The only possible reason for this, as far as I was concerned, was that the medication was enabling me to access new parts of my brain. At long last, my smarts were back. And I was using them.

When I reached the university environment, both medicated and unmedicated experiences allowed me to see the impact of prescription drug on my marks. Over the years, I came to perceive a connection – medication allowed me to access the smarts that could get me better marks.

In my fourth year of University, I embarked on a major project focusing on an ADHD Student’s Guide to University. I started to delve into Performance Psychology and came across The Art of Learning; everything changed. Through Josh’s story, I was introduced to perspectives and theories that I had experienced yet never understood. Finally, they had a name, and I could emulate them time and time again.

I found that in my work I was focused on too much at once, making it impossible for me to focus on the essence and details. My circles were too large! After reading ‘Making Smaller Circles’, I started to focus on the brick instead of the wall, making sure that I was zeroing in on the smaller individual elements that make up the bigger picture. Over time, these smaller elements were internalized and became more potent.


My approach to learning and achievement evolved over the years. It went from ‘my smarts get  the marks’ to ‘my medication gets the marks’. However, after reading ‘Two Approaches To Learning’, I was able to see in hindsight that my achievements weren’t the result of my smarts or my medication – they were the result of the work that my smarts and medication had lead me to do. No longer was my success the result of an intangible and unchangeable. I knew what made me tick and I was able to go on and repeat it time and time again.

I now work as a Lifestyle Architect in Sydney, Australia, passing on these techniques and perspectives amongst others to children and young adults with ADHD. After experiencing first-hand the awesome power of these changes in perspective and technique, I have been driven to pass them on to others just like me.

It’s not that I’m smarter than this.

It’s that I work hard.