Lesson 1: Before You Learn Don’t Start Learning

Lesson 1: Before You Learn Don’t Start Learning

Welcome to your first lesson of Self-Learning Quest!

Throughout your self-learning quest journey you will be venturing into many lands and fighting bosses of all sorts. The end destination: The Hellfire Magefield.

There lies the end goal of your journey, The Key Of Learning. You don’t know what it does, but you know it will help you with your self-learning quests.

Taking a deep breadth, you step onto the path and off into the sunrise.

After a few hours of traveling you come across the first step in your journey: The Swamps of Disclarity. The stench reminds you of dirty underwear. You hear a ghostly sigh come from all directions simultaneously. The swamp seams to darken even though you swear the sun was out just seconds before.

From behind one tree glides Nebuloth, The Mistwraith King.

To vanquish this foe, you must make it through this lesson and apply the action items.

Today's Challenge: Create A Learning Map

"If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail." - Benjamin Franklin

On October 1, 2011, Scott Young asked himself a question that would change his life: What if he tried to learn the full four-year M.I.T. computer science curriculum in just one year with a budget of $2,000?

He already had a business degree. However, after four years in college and tens of thousands of mullah in student debt, he realized a business degree is really something you get to procrastinate on making a business than actually building one.  He decided to get a computer science degree but lacked the money and time to return to college.

Then, he discovered that M.I.T. posted its entire computer science curriculum online for free.

Scott was intrigued. His friends and family said he was insane, arrogant, or a mix of both. Nonetheless, twelve months later, on September 26, 2012, he completed his challenge.

This begs the question: how was he able to do it?

The answer lies in his secret weapon: meta-learning.

Meta-learning means learning about learning. It involves seeing how a subject works, how experts in the past have tried to master it, and how you can tailor your learning to your specific needs. With meta-learning you can learn things faster and more effectively while avoiding learning things you don’t need to know.

To really understand how powerful this is let’s use an absurd analogy. Imagine every learner who embarks on a learning endeavor enters the learning ocean, a vast expanse begging for adventure. Most ships get hired by Captain School an old sailor who means well but has long since passed his glory days.

Even though everyone is going to different spots in the learning ocean, Captain School gives everyone the same directions and supplies with no map.

Going back to real life, school often doesn’t have the resources, time, or knowledge to personalize learning to us. Obviously, this is a problem and for our analogy results in many people ending up in places on the learning ocean they don't want to be in.

In school, like this is tantamount to learning something ineffectively because of following bad meta-learning principles, or worse, learning something you don't want to learn in the first place.

The solution is in doing what Scott Young did for his M.I.T. challenge, creating a Meta-Learning Map.

A Meta-Learning Map is a bird's eye view of your learning goal, why you want to embark on it, gaps you need to learn, the resources you have at your disposal, and your exact plan for using them. I summarize the process of creating your own Meta-Learning Map using the Q.U.E.S.T. framework which stands for:

  • Question Your Goal
  • Uncover Gaps
  • Explore Resources
  • Strategize Backwards
  • Tackle And Tweak

This is the five-step process I go through for every self-learning endeavor I embark on. I call it Q.U.E.S.T. because it makes me feel like I'm playing a game. Like a quest in your favorite game, your learning endeavors can be epic.

Using a Meta-Learning Map, you can avoid most of the dangers navigating the learning ocean like the Troll Island of Frustration. This is how Scott Young did the M.I.T. challenge. Before starting, he created a map of how he would learn the curriculum. He gathered practice problems, free lectures online, set rules for himself, planned out how he would structure his day and weeks to study and when he would do his exams.

Through creating a map and following other meta-learning principles, Scott completed a curriculum which should have taken him four years in one.

So, let's learn how to create our own meta-learning map by going step by step through the Q.UE.S.T. framework, using one of my own learning endeavors as an example: learning how to incorporate periodization into my resistance training and dieting at the gym.

Q - Question Your Goal:

You can think of this step as identifying why you are embarking on this learning endeavor.

Define what you want to learn concretely and why, and connect it to something you already care about, similar to choosing your quest in a game.

So, let’s start by defining what periodization is. It's a fitness system created by Dr. Mike Israetel that involves the systemic organizing and planning of your resistance training into cycles, which include microcycles, mesocycles, and macrocycles with distinct goals, training variables, and methodologies. It also involves periods of cutting, maintaining, and bulking. You don't have to know these jargon terms if you're not into the gym, but it’s good to have a general idea of what it is as we go through Q.U.E.S.T.

Why do I want to learn how to do it?

  • For the last year I have been stagnating in the gym and I think it's in large part because I'm too light and have been trying to progressively overload. I've gone through my beginner gains phase and need to try something new.
  • It will be fun to experiment with a new technique for the gym. I've been going for four years and want to reignite my passion.
  • It will make me look more attractive and physically fit if it works. Hey, I’m only human.

Another part of Q is asking whether this is an instrumental or intrinsic learning project.

Instrumental learning projects are those you are learning with the purpose of predominantly extrinsic reward. For example, learning a new coding language so you can boost your job application portfolio.

Intrinsic projects are those that you're pursuing for their own sake. For example, learning Spanish because you think it will be fun even though you're not sure what you'll use it for yet.

Usually there are both extrinsic and intrinsic reasons for doing something but often you lean towards one or the other.

If you're doing an instrumental learning project, it's a good idea to do the additional research step of talking to an expert about what you need to achieve a goal. For example, let's say you wanted to become a successful entrepreneur. Before going to business school and taking hundreds of thousands in student loans, it would be a good idea to talk to some successful entrepreneurs about if this is necessary. If Scott Young had done this before going to business school he might have been able to save a lot of mullah.

Reaching out and setting up a meeting with an expert isn't hard, but it's a step many people shy away from. Many people ”particularly the introverts among us” recoil like a scared turtle at the idea of cold emailing someone.

But it's less hard than you think. Most experts are willing to help if you send them a nice message. I get nice emails from my audience all the time ”shameless flex.

The important thing is to be concise.

Write a simple, to the point email, mentioning who you are and why you want to contact them and ask for no more than 15 minutes of their time through email or a video call.

Even if your learning endeavor is intrinsic, it can still be useful to validate whether you actually need to learn something. But it's not as necessary. In my case, this is definitely an intrinsic learning project, so I won't be reaching out to an expert to talk to them.

U - Uncover Gaps:

You can think of uncovering gaps as the "what" part of your learning map as in this step, you identify new knowledge, skills, habits, routines, environments or tools you need for your learning endeavor. It doesn't matter if your list isn't perfect as you’ll be changing it as you embark on your learning endeavor in the tackle and tweak step.

Knowledge gaps can be split into concepts and facts.

Concepts are ideas you need to understand in flexible ways for them to be useful. Chemistry and math, for example, are both subjects that lean heavily toward concepts. Some subjects straddle the concept/fact divide, such as psychology, which has facts like human biases that must be memorized as well as principles that must be understood. In general, if something needs to be understood, not just memorized, I put it into this column instead of the second column for facts.

Facts are anything that you need to memorize. They don't need to be understood as long as you know them. Languages, for example, are full of facts about vocabulary, punctuation, and to a lesser extent grammar.

For my learning endeavor this step looked like this:


  • Periodization
  • Maintenance, bulking, and cutting
  • Macros


  • Niche fitness terminology like M.V.P., R.I.R., Deloads, and more.


  • Discipline--yes it's a skill especially necessary for a learning endeavor that involves so much physical and mental effort


  • Regular gym time

Once you have written down all of your learning gaps, you can underline the ones that seem like they will be most challenging so you can keep these in mind while exploring for resources in the next step.

For example, you might notice that discipline is one of the skills I will have to improve for this project. Yup, sometimes I struggle with not taking that spoonful of extra peanut butter while having lunch. So, in the next section, I should look for resources on how other people have built discipline in the past.

E - Explore Resources:

You can think of the next three steps including this one as identifying how you will embark on your learning endeavor.

In this step, you gather the best tools, resources, and allies for your journey” articles, books, courses, podcasts, videos, and mentors” mirroring the collection of gear and formation of alliances in preparation for a quest.

According to Scott Young (2019) talks in Ultralearning about two methods you can use to do this[1]:

  • Benchmarking
  • Emphasizing/Excluding

The first is benchmarking which includes exploring already established ways people have learned what you are trying to learn.

Examples could be from University curriculums like Harvard, M.I.T., Cornell, etc. or other experts who have documented their learning journeys. For example, while exploring resources for periodization, I found tons of free videos online from Dr. Mike Israetel, as well as his book Scientific Principles of Hypertrophy Training. In addition, I found many resources on how to maintain, bulk, cut, and build the skill of discipline from people like Jeff Nippard and AtleanX.

Once you have benchmarked, you can begin emphasizing/excluding, which involves emphasizing or excluding certain parts of a resource to fit with your specific learning goal. For example, I emphasized everything about periodization because that was the new thing I was learning. And I already knew a lot of basics about the gym, so I excluded anything for beginners in any of the resources I consumed.

How much planning should you do?

It's a tough question. Planning might allow you to learn vastly more effectively by avoiding material you don't need and emphasizing the material you do. But it can also become a procrastination activity. We all know or have been the person who has said “I’M GoInG TO chAnGe My LIfE, Tomorrow.”  So, it's impossible to tell how long you should plan for.

But generally, the longer your learning project, the longer you should plan out how you're going to learn. This is because any mistakes in your map will have a much larger time span to take effect.

S - Strategize Backwards:

This step is where you concretely set forth how you are going to embark on your learning endeavor by setting higher-order goals all the way down to individual tasks and daily routines.

I recommend you plan your path to the end goal by starting at the final objective and working backward. This is called reverse goal setting and makes it more likely your goals will get you toward where you're trying to go.

There's so much research on how to set goals, from S.M.A.R.T. goal setting to not setting goals at all. It's up to you to find your own path. But I'll give you my favorite goal-setting method which I got from Ali Abdaal (2024) in his book Feel Good Productivity[2]. it's called N.I.C.E. goal setting. Isn't that nice?

N.I.C.E. goals are:

  • Near-term: next few weeks or months
  • Input-based: emphasize the process of getting to a goal rather than the outcome
  • Controllable: you can influence them
  • Energizing: it get's you excited or at least purposeful to think about

So, for my periodization learning endeavor my main N.I.C.E. goals were:

  • Complete my first macrocycle and assess how it feels
    • Spend an hour or more a day over the next two weeks going through my resources and implementing them into the regular times I already go to the gym in this order:
      • Dr. Mike Israetel's free videos on periodization online
      • Scientific Principles of Hypertrophy Training
      • Videos from Jeff Nippard, Dr. Mike, and AtleanX on discipline, and maintaining, bulking, and cutting
    • Write a blog post after two weeks summarizing my learnings about periodization. You can read it here.

T - Tackle and Tweak:

The last step of Q.U.E.S.T. is to embark on your quest, ready to face challenges and adapt your strategies as needed.

This step represents the action phase, where you apply what you've planned and adjust based on feedback and results.

When You Learn How To Learn, The World Opens Up

The real benefits of meta-learning don't show themselves in the first learning endeavor you go down.

As you embark on more self-learning quests, your meta-learning skill increases as well. You learn more about your motivations, how to manage your time, your capacities, and more. Ultimately, the beauty comes not in any individual learning project but in the way they cumulatively impact your life.

You start believing in yourself. Your mind opens up. You realize you don't have to go to school and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn something. You can learn it yourself.

Of course, this isn't the same as getting a certificate proving you have learned (although I would argue you often haven't) something from a University or program, but it's learning none the less.

🎯Take Action Today

  • Create a meta-learning map using the Q.U.E.S.T. framework for a self-learning endeavor you want to start or for one you are already embarking upon.

After a narly battle, you diss Nebuloth, The Mistwraith King by telling him the dementors from Harry Potter are scarier. He is so throughouly defeated by your diss, he lets out a bloodcurdling scream and retreats back into the forest. You gain a beautiful sense of clarity. You know what you’re self-learning quest will be.

If you're ready for the next lesson before waiting until tomorrow you can always access all lessons by clicking here.


  1. Young, S. 2019. Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career. Harper Business. https://amzn.to/3KjGT0F ↩︎
  2. Abdaal, A. (2024). Feel Good Productivity: How To Do More Of What Matters To You. Macmillan Audio. https://amzn.to/3UbeEa6 ↩︎