learning like an athlete

David Perell has a good, short article on how knowledge workers should apply athletic training principles to their own learning.

He points to the example of Lebron James, famous for his offseason workouts addressing weaknesses in his game. James enlisted a mentor in Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post game and has repeatedly worked on his shooting, a relative weakness of his when he entered the league.

Perell describes how goals should be clear, reviewable and quantifiable, like an athlete and that you should ‘video game’ your learning. This is another way of saying ‘progressive overload’ - do just a bit more each time, just beyond your previous capacity. Too far beyond the limits and an athlete will hurt themselves. For the knowledge worker the results are less severe. You’ll probably just give up.

You need to do just enough to stress yourself, to stimulate a growth response and an adaptation to training. This needs quantifying and ramping up over time as you improve.

The theory is incredibly sound. Many people have some misconceptions regarding how athletes train.

Athletes train most days. You need to do enough to improve, to stimulate your growth response, but not too much that you can’t train the next day. You are actually training in order to compete; therefore you need to be in prime condition to perform whenever your competition is, typically the weekend for many sports.

Lebron James needs to compete every few days, sometimes on back to back evenings. Think of the recent NBA season and Kawhi Leonard’s ‘load management’, not playing any back to back games throughout the regular season.

Knowledge workers always play back to back. Overly fatiguing yourself in pursuit of extra curricular learning could hamper your performance at work. You need to carefully balance your activities and allow time for rest and recovery. Ideas often come to the idle mind too. Procrastination is vital for the birth of new ideas.

This is where people get athletes wrong. People see trite Insta-Slogans like ‘rise and grind’, they watch the edited offseason workout video arms race on social media and assume that athletes train like that all the time, every day.

They don’t. If they did, they’d be cooked on the field and would not last long. At all.

This is where athletes practise a concept, given the name Strategic Laziness by Tim Ferriss but defined below by Nike trainer Joe Holder:


You need the Minimum Viable Dose, just enough effort to get the desired response. Not to slog yourself senseless and ‘max out’; you’ll be useless the next day.

There are times for this approach but athletes tend to do these sessions in preseason when competition is a long way off. They are often not solely aimed at athletic training but act as a test of will. If you know you can go to that place, you’ll be able to on the field when all bets are off.

Strategic laziness is using leverage. Identify your highest leverage methods, the most effective route to improvement, and apply them, never doing more than you have to. 80:20 the shit out of it.

So you need to pick a goal, quantify your progress, use progressive overload and maybe most crucially, have a growth mindset, know that you don’t know everything.

Lebron James is one of the greatest basketball players ever but he was not above enlisting someone who he regarded as being better than him at something to help him out. Kanye West, a man everyone seems to get wrong, says,

I’m always the 5 year old of something

This is the case for anyone in any line of work. You’ll have something to learn from someone. Go and find them and get after it. Let everyone know how it goes.

Ben Mercer