Learning Speed: What Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, And Bill Gates Know That Most People Don’t
Author’s Note: This article was written over 60 hours with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.
Over the last five years, I’ve spent over a thousand hours uncovering the most surprising and important learning habits of the world’s top innovators, like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos.
More recently, I’ve realized there is a deeper pattern that connects all these innovators together. That pattern is what I call hidden games.
Most people play popular games—games with predefined boundaries that are played in crowded sandboxes. Popular games are often those with the most short-term, concrete rewards. For example, a popular career game is getting good grades, going to a top university, and then graduating to a prestigious job.
Hidden games are played in sandboxes that people don’t even realize exist. Hidden games have a higher return, but they are more long-term and abstract. For example, a hidden game is starting a business in an unsexy industry (i.e., building tunnels with Elon Musk).
Alone, popular games with immediate and obvious benefits often end up being quick fixes that plateau or fail. Hidden games that are harder and unsexy at first often end up having exponential benefits over time.
The innovators I’ve studied play both the following hidden and popular games…
It is a sad irony that this also seems to apply across other domains of life. Many of the things that feel the best in the short term feel the worst in the long term.
Playing hidden games allows these innovators to walk to their own tune, to make incredible innovations, and to be camouflaged even when they are well known. Hidden games have also changed my life. As a result of applying the hidden games I mentioned above to my life, I now spend 3-4 hours per day on deliberate learning focused on durable mental models that span disciplinary boundaries. Because of this long-term bet, my life has radically changed much faster than I expected. I went from forcing myself through the day with willpower to feeling like a kid in a candy store. I’ve gone from feeling like I don’t have any distinct perspectives to my writing making a small dent in millions of people’s lives. Finally, I’ve gone from struggling financially to not having to worry about money.
In this article, I add another crucially important but hidden game…
Inside The Hidden Game Of Speed
Frankly, I avoided speed. I avoided it until I noticed that top innovators weren’t just talking about it; they were swearing by it.
I came to this hidden game of speed as I read all the books on, and listened to over 100 interviews of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and other innovators. Then, I went deeper by reading Blitzscaling by legendary Entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, Certain To Win about the greatest fighter pilot in history, Business @ The Speed Of Thought by Bill Gates, Lean Startup by thinker and entrepreneur Eric Ries, Competing Against Time: How Time-Based Competition Is Reshaping Global Markets by management consultant George Stalk, Clockspeed: Winning Industry Control In The Age Of Temporary Advantage by MIT researcher Charles Fine, and Speed As A Habit by public company CEO, Dave Girouard.
Here’s what I missed at first that most other people also miss…
How The Game Of Speed Is Underappreciated
I associated speed with being hurried, working long hours, low-quality work, and feeling overwhelmed. I was wrong. There was a lot of nuance I didn’t appreciate—nuance like the quote below offers…
Be quick, but don’t hurry.
—John Wooden (most successful college basketball coach of all time)
As I dug deeper, I realized that speed isn’t fundamentally about “doing more” or “running faster.” Rather, it is more a way of thinking. For example, I noticed the innovators were actually talking about two things: execution speed and learning speed. Both are important, but they’re not the same. More on this later.
In this in-depth article, I will show you how speed can be the game changer you’re looking for to get ahead in your career and business whether or not you’re an entrepreneur.
To start, I want to show you some of the breadcrumbs I came across as I did my research that made me feel like I was missing something by not digging deeper on speed.
These Quotes Show How The World’s Top Innovators Swear By Speed
Speed is the ultimate weapon in business. All else being equal, the fastest company in any market will win. Speed is a defining characteristic — if not the defining characteristic — of the leader in virtually every industry you look at.
—Dave Girouard, founder CEO of Upstart (public company), and former president of Google Enterprise Apps
For pretty much any technology whatsoever, the progress is a function of how many iterations do you have, and how much progress do you make between each iteration.
Everybody must realize that if you don’t meet customer demand quickly enough, without sacrificing quality, a competitor will.
When people ask me that question, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ I always say speed.
—Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors
The only way to win is to learn faster than everybody else.
—Eric Ries, creator of Lean Startup Movement
Before product-market fit… just care about speed of iteration according to your customer feedback. So in terms of hiring, get people that can help you build the product faster… anything that minimizes the time between observing a need or a problem, and the execution or the fix for it.
—Patrick Collison, self-made billionaire founder of Stripe
I still underestimate the compounding power of the rapid execution and iterated learning feedback loop. A commitment to this, over the course of a career, is the closest thing you can get to guaranteed success. (Nov 24, 2020)
—Sam Altman, former president of Y Combinator (world’s largest accelerator) and co-founder of OpenAI (with Elon Musk)
Instead of launching a finely polished gem, companies now release a ‘minimum viable product,’ then get immediate feedback from customers, incorporate that feedback into the next iteration, release a slightly upgraded version, and repeat. Instead of design cycles that last years, the agile process takes weeks and produces results directly in line with consumer expectations.
—Peter Diamandis, creator of X-Prize
In addition, for the first seven years of Amazon’s existence, the core motto internally was “get big fast.” So central was this idea that at one company picnic, every one of the hundreds of employees were given a T-shirt that read, “Get Big Fast . . . Have Another Hot Dog!” For the first ten years of Facebook’s existence, the core motto was “move fast and break things.” When Google launched, Yahoo was the #1 search engine. Google’s core differentiating feature was load speed. Finally, the first book by Bill Gates is about speed.
Bottom line: Almost all of the world’s largest modern companies and top innovators had speed as their №1 value at one point or still do.
But, if you look closely, there is also a deeper lesson to be learned from these quotes. The innovators aren’t just talking about one type of speed…
Execution Speed ≠ Learning Speed
Both learning speed and execution speed are important, but they’re often conflated with each other. This is a big deal.
Execution speed is about getting more done by either putting in more resources or by operating more efficiently. Examples of execution speed include:
Working a longer day
Making decisions faster
Finding a tool that helps you work faster
Making sure people aren’t waiting on one another to move forward
Removing a bottleneck in an assembly line
When most people think about speed, they’re really thinking about execution speed. This is why the idea of speed is associated with long hours and hurry.
Learning speed is special in two ways:
Higher leverage. You can 10x your learning speed through compounding and better learning techniques. At most, you can 2x how many hours you work.
Fewer sacrifices. When you work too long, you sacrifice your health and relationships with friends and family.
You can increase your learning speed in several ways:
Spending more time learning.
Learning knowledge that doesn’t become outdated so your knowledge compounds
Finding breakthrough knowledge in a sea of info overwhelm.
Remembering what you learn so you can use it for the rest of your life.
Creating an experimentation engine so you can rapidly try new ideas without procrastinating and without taking on huge risk.
Systematically identifying and removing your blindspots.
Execution speed is a popular game. Learning speed is a hidden game. On a broader cultural level, most people understand execution speed. Few understand learning speed and have anything more than a basic model of it.
By systematically increasing our execution speed and learning speed, five surprisingly powerful things happen in our careers and businesses…
#1. The pace of life is increasing, and our pace needs to increase with it or we will be left behind
My models show that we are doubling the paradigm-shift rate every decade.
—Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google
As I share in-depth in 5-Hour Rule: The Antidote To The Exploding Pace Of Modern Life, the rate of paradigm shift in the world is doubling every 10 years. This means that by 2040, the pace will be 4x what it is now. And in 100 years, it will be 1,024x what it is now.
These predictions were created by Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, who is also arguably the #1 futurist in the world. Kurzweil created his prediction by plotting the largest milestones of biological and technological development on a single graph…
Kurzweil’s key events roughly mirror reference books that have compiled the most important historical events (Encyclopedia Britannica, the American Museum of Natural History, Carl Sagan’s “cosmic calendar,” and others).
A big implication of this prediction is that we shouldn’t expect things to return to normal. In fact, the opposite is more likely. Simultaneous destabilizing events are the new normal. The following chart shows how the quantity and magnitude of the “technological” tsunamis heading for us is unprecedented.
This increasing rate of change is important because the amount of effort we need to stay up-to-date increases with that rate of change. For example, if your profession (lawyer, doctor, accountant) suggests you spend 50 hours per year to stay up-to-date, that number will likely double in the next 10 years.
If we fall behind the rate of change in any given field, over time, we get outcompeted and fall further and further behind. In the worst-case scenario, we fall so far behind that it is virtually impossible to catch up. When we operate above the rate of change, we get further and further ahead.
When we are ahead of others, we are in demand, get promoted sooner, and can charge a premium. When we are behind others, we are the first to be let go.
I first realized the risk of falling behind while playing tennis growing up.
Things started off great. I played my first tournament when I was 12 years old and got to the finals. Emboldened by early success, I started playing more tournaments. In a few years, I got good enough where I was playing the best tennis players in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
When I got to this higher level, I realized that many of the best players had started playing competitively when they were 7 years old. Not only that, some of them were going to school only half a day so they could play tennis for the other half. At that point, I became demoralized. Not only did they have a huge lead, they were still getting better faster than me. There weren’t enough hours in the day for me to match their practice schedule and experience.
Even more demoralizing, I wasn’t even seeing the best players in the country or world; they were at a whole other level. That’s when I ultimately gave up on being a great tennis player. I was too far behind. That experience taught me an important lesson about compounding gains and what it takes to be world-class. I never wanted to fall that far behind again in any area that was important to me.
Bottom line: As the world becomes more global and digital, tens of millions of people will realize that they are further behind than they realized and that catching up feels impossible. The solution is to increase your learning speed now and not wait until you are forced to.
#2. Being a little bit faster can be the difference between winning and losing
You can either set the pace of the market or be the one to react. Whoever is fastest out of the gate is the one everyone else has to react to.
—Dave Girouard, Founder CEO of Upstart, and former President of Google Enterprise Apps
Little differences make all the difference.
In sports, winning a basketball game by one point is the difference between winning and losing. The outcome is binary.
In business, the same is true in winner-take-most markets. And, because of digitization, more and more industries are becoming winner-take-most. Once a company like Amazon or Facebook or Apple becomes the best, it’s extremely hard to unseat them.
In other words, what matters is relative speed, not absolute speed. If two people or companies are competing against the other, the one who is slightly faster has a huge edge, because the one going slower is constantly reactive and disoriented.
The greatest fighter pilot in US history, John Boyd, explains this disorientation phenomenon in one of his briefings:
The ability to operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables one to fold the adversary back inside himself so that he can neither appreciate nor keep up with what is going on. He will become disoriented and confused…
One of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time Reid Hoffman echoes a similar phenomenon in business:
Blitzscaling [acting fast] lets you set a pace that keeps your competitors gasping simply to keep up, affording them little time and space to counterattack. Because they’re focused on responding to your moves, which can often take them by surprise and force them to play catch-up, they don’t have as much time available to develop and execute differentiated strategies that might threaten your position.
—Reid Hoffman, Founder of LinkedIn
Jeff Bezos may be the best example of the application of this idea in business history. He built his company based on the idea of rapidly pioneering on behalf of customers rather than focusing on competitors…
If you’re competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering.
And, you’ve probably heard the following joke more than once…
Two strangers were out backpacking in the woods. They came upon each other and decided to walk together. Around a bend in the trail they came face to face with a bear. One stranger drops to his knee, fetches his running shoes from his backpack and begins removing his hiking boots. The other stranger just stares and says, “There is no way you can run faster than that bear.” The kneeling stranger stands up and replies, “I don’t have to be faster than the bear. I only have to be faster than you.
Bottom line: Being a little bit ahead vs being a little bit behind is the difference between winning and losing. Therefore, be proactive rather than reactive.