Don’t Read Anything; Solve Problems

I have been taking (and thoroughly enjoying) the free Artificial Intelligence class being taught by two luminaries in the field – Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. They do weekly virtual office hours to answer questions from students. Students have been asking some great questions and it’s been nice to see the great chemistry these guys have in answering them.

Citing the staggering bibliography in his seminal A.I. textbook, a question was posed to Peter about any methods he might suggest to students attempting to learn a lot of complex material. Peter starts to answer it and Sebastian supplements it further. The advice is just pure gold. While aimed at students interested in A.I., needless to say, it is widely applicable to all. Focus on actively solving problems that are challenging yet attainable in your field of interest. The rest will follow. Of course, more passive activities such as reading is easier but not as rewarding in attaining goals. Take a look at the video above starting at about 6:25 – particularly Sebastian’s response – which I’ve tried to transcribe here:

“I can let you in on a little secret in my professional academic life. When students join Stanford and ask me “what should I read?” I tend to tell them “Don’t read anything”. And that sounds a little bit bizarre but I deeply believe the best way to learn is to solve problems. So pick a problem that’s interesting and don’t worry about whether it’s been solved before or not. Just make sure that it’s challenging enough for you, that you can actually do something about it, that it’s not so challenging that you can’t do anything about it, and then start solving it.

And as you solve the first version of it, then start reading papers. And the reason is, first of all, if you just read papers, your thinking will be so engraved in the way people thought before you, it’s really hard for you to find something new and something interesting. And obviously the problem isn’t solved, otherwise you wouldn’t have to read any papers.

Secondly, your ability to understand papers goes up greatly with your ability to solve problems. If you really try to understand a subject really deeply (and maybe you fail and maybe have certain successes) then these other papers will make much more sense.

I’ve obviously driven my own life by trying to solve problems that I have no clue how to solve and I just get into it. It’s always worked well and it’s worked well for my students. The students that come to me with huge, huge lists of literature – maybe they’re successful with some other professors – but with me I tend to discourage them and just tell them to do something interesting.

Now doing something interesting is hard. It’s easy to come up with an idea that’s so fundamental like building the human brain – it’d be great if you’d solve it, but you can’t. My favorite is inventing a gravity shield – it’s impossible to even know what the first step is. So the trick is to find problems that are reasonable…where you think if you sit down you can do it in a short amount of time.

And as you do it, keep your eyes open to the next problem to solve. And if you’re smart, as you solve your first problem in the first couple of weeks, you’ll probably think of ten other interesting problems that have come up along the way that you really didn’t think about before. That to me has always been the best path of learning. Then go back, consult the literature and see what people have written. But don’t read too much in my opinion – you can quote me on that!”

…And I just did.