Traversing the Mind, with Dominic Zijlstra – Episode 405 of The Action Catalyst Podcast
- Posted by Action Catalyst
- On November 22, 2022
- 0 Comments
- education, engineering, habits, learning, technology, ultralearning
Dominic Zijlstra, founder of Traverse.link, an app that helps professionals learn faster using science-backed learning methods, explains how to adopt more effective learning habits, recounts his time as a rocket scientist (sort of), and details the steps to building a growth mindset, finding the root of learning, and creating a roadmap, plus the 4 steps to enhanced learning and recall, the value of making it personal, and letting your unconscious mind solve problems for you.
And just for Action Catalyst listeners, sign up at https://traverse.link/actioncatalyst and receive a superlearning guide customized just for you, courtesy of Dominic!
Dominic Zijlstra is the founder of Traverse.link, an app that helps professionals learn faster using science-backed learning methods. He studied in the Netherlands, Germany and Brazil and holds a master’s degree in Engineering Physics. He worked as a space systems engineer for Airbus, then switched to a data scientist role at a London tech startup, before starting his entrepreneurial journey. He has a passion for language learning and currently speaks 7.
After meeting his wife, Dominic found himself unable to communicate with his Chinese parents-in-law, and struggled to learn Chinese. His big realization was that although he thought he was pretty smart, his learning methods were actually quite weak. This led him to spend the next years researching the principles of effective learning, and to develop a start-to-end method for learning anything faster (which he used to master Chinese).
This method formed the basis for his app Traverse.link. Over 10,000 professionals have used the app’s visual concept maps, interlinked notes and smart flashcards to learn skills like languages, programming, marketing, psychology and more.
When taking a break from entrepreneurship, Dominic can be found spending time hiking, rock climbing and mountain biking, and also enjoys reading the classic books. Dominic also hosts the “Superlearning Professionals” podcast.
Learn more at Traverse.link.
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(Transcribed using A.I. / May include errors):
Intro: Today’s guest is Dominic Zilstra, founder of traverse.link, an app that helps professionals learn faster using science backed learning methods. He studied in the Netherlands, Germany, and Brazil, and holds a master’s degree in engineering physics. Dominic has worked as a space systems engineer for Airbus and a data scientist before starting his entrepreneurial. His app has helped over 10,000 professionals learn skills like languages, programming, marketing, psychology, and more. Dominic also hosts the Super Learning Professionals Podcast. We hope you enjoy.
Dan Moore: Hello everyone, this is Dan Moore. Welcome to the Action Catalyst, and I’m very excited that our guest is coming to us from the Netherlands. Mr. Dominic Zilstra. Dominic, you have an incredible background. We’re gonna hear all about it. Welcome to the Action Catalyst.
Dominic Zijlstra: Yeah, thanks then. Very excited to be here.
Dan Moore: This gentleman has been a data scientist. He has been a rocket scientist. So for the people that say it doesn’t take a rocket science to figure some things out, I think maybe it does take a rocket scientists to figure some things out. , and you have definitely done that with traverse. Anyway. If you don’t mind, walk us back through some of the, the key moments in your past that led you to where now you have created this wonderful, wonderful learning system traverse.
Dominic Zijlstra: I grew up, my grandfather, he had a farm in Germany. He built his own business there. So I went to Germany initially to study physics and um, and engineering. And, uh, I took some time to, to integrate. You know, people can be a bit close there. Uh, so I had to learn the language. Uh, eventually I made friends and I made very close friends there.
And later on I went to, to Sweden on an exchange program. I met a lot of people. All over the world. And that’s when I really started to feel like more than just citizen, more like a world, a world citizen almost. And at the end of that, I actually met a, a girl from, from Brazil and we started dating and I decided I wanted to go and graduate in.
And I, I wrote my master Jesus there in, uh, in aerospace, as you already mentioned, not, not quite a rocket scientist. Definitely the era . Yeah. And then I came back to Europe and uh, that relationship ended and I got a job in, uh, in spacecraft engineering at Airbus. And I actually met my partner, my current wife at that um, point, and she’s from, she’s from China.
That’s when I, when I really kind of hit a roadblock was, cause whenever I. Went to China to visit her friends, her parents, uh, they couldn’t speak in English. They could only speak Chinese. So I had tried to learn Chinese just like I had learned other languages before, but it just turned out to be impossible.
It was, it was much harder. So that’s when I really took a step back and I, I took a look at how I had approached learning in the past. So I had, I had learned several languages. I had learned. Physics, uh, rocket science, data science. But actually the method that I used were kind of weak. They were not, not effective enough, not effective enough to learn something as challenging as as Chinese.
So that’s what I really dove into the science behind learning. And I learned about meta learning, like effective memorization techniques like space repetition, active free call. And then I came up with a method that I. Used myself to learn Mandarin Chinese, and after that I discovered it’s, it’s much more broadly applicable so that I used it to learn other languages.
I used it to, to learn programming skills. At that point, I was actually planning to move to China, to s. To, um, yeah, really get really fluent in Chinese, get a job there. Uh, but that was when, when Covid struck as well. So that was for me, another turning point where, where the universe was telling me, well, you’re not supposed to go there and just be like, like a teacher, you know?
Instead, you have to take this system and bring it out to the world. So I, I turned into, into an app. That app is, is traverse.link and it yeah, incorporates a lot of the scientific method that I used to learn. And yeah, now people are using it to learn all kinds of things from languages to like medicine, to, um, skills like, like marketing, psychology.
And that’s, and it has come full circle again. So I’m actually working with a, with an online Chinese course now they’re, they’re using the app as well, so yeah, now, now I’ve really been able. Turn my, my personal learning method into something that, uh, people from all over the world can use, uh, whatever they want to learn.
Dan Moore: I think it’s a phenomenal story. And you are a citizen of the world. Clearly. You’ve traveled so much. You’ve lived in various places. I’m also married to an international, my wife is Portuguese, Puerto Bay. And I know that that ability to learn is such an important thing, but people have mental blocks about things they can learn and can’t learn.
Dominic Zijlstra: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And I think a lot of those mental blocks are actually already, um, instilled by school. In school we kind of have to learn a fixed set of things. We have to learn the curriculum, um, we have to learn to pass a certain exam, and that’s it. Then we move on to the next thing, and I think there is a couple of problems with that.
So, so for. Kind of kills off our curiosity. Like if you, if you look at a child, he will explore and dive into, into something and find out everything he can, he can about it. And it’s very, very curious. Um, but there’s actually research that shows that our education system kind of reduces that, that natural curiosity over time.
Another thing that it does, it’s, uh, because we have those exam scores, people think that, oh, well I’m, I’m bad at like math. I’ll, I’ll never learn, I’ll never learn math. So it establishes this fixed mindset almost like this cannot be changed. I’m bad at math, but the reality is that our brains are.
Incredibly flexible. The key to overcoming those roadblocks when, when getting stuck is adapting what’s called like a growth, a growth mindset. Mm-hmm. . So we actually accept that by using, using the right methods, we can approach any subject, like no matter what level we are coming from, and start learning it, start getting better at, better at it.
Like, like one step at a. As long as we are confident that we can actually do that, can actually achieve that. And that might take, might take a long time. And the key is building that a learning, learning habit. So even if we improve just 1% a. It accumulates over time. It adds up to, I think it’s like 38 times in a year due to the power of compounding.
So the key to overcoming those roadblocks is really establishing that, that growth mindset and building an open habit. And also not being, not being afraid of, of failure. Cause you will, you will feel it’s, it’s almost inevitable when we try new things in at the beginning, we are gonna be bad at it. Um, but accepting that we will fail and.
Good to fail that we can, that failure actually strengthen us. Failure. Failure makes us better. And that’s what, uh, will help us overcome those, those roadblocks.
Dan Moore: Well, it seems like we have two strikes against our current education system because the worst trade you can give in education is f, which means you failed.
And also the fact that so many people are rated according to where they got the right answer. And there may be more than one right answer, but as long as we’re training to get the right answer, it’s gonna affect some people’s confidence and certainly their creativity. Exactly. Yeah. Let’s, let’s dig in a little bit more to this, this growth mindset and how somebody could develop it.
Let’s say for example, that I’ve been a pretty good student in, in English and history and I love to. But again, mathematics is sort of like, no, get away from me. Math, math stuff. What are some things that I can do on a, on a daily basis to eliminate that negative belief that I’ve got and to build that growth mindset?
Dominic Zijlstra: Yeah. So basically what I, what I’ve found when learning those different things, like yeah, learning languages, um, learning new fields like. Data science, which also involves a lot of math, is that every learning process can be, can be broken down in, in more or less the same steps. And if you follow those steps, you will still face challenges, but they will be manageable.
They won’t, they won’t stop you from achieving what you want to learn. And, and the first step is basically drawing out a map of what you want to learn. So, uh, there’s so much information out there, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed, especially now in, in, in the digital age. So the first step is, Throwing out a map and creating almost like a, a tree of knowledge where you separate the, the really important things from the, from the small details and really get it clear in your head.
And once you’ve done that, you, you have identified basically the place to, to start. So basically the roots of learning. And from there you can then take, take the next step, which is building the initial understanding. A good way to build understandings is by writing and drawing in your own words. You, you, you can have a textbook full of math with intimidating equations, but you never gotta get anywhere unless you stop.
You start doing it yourself. So take the simplest equation you can find, write it down, take an exercise from the book maybe, and just. Start doing it and start, start making it your own. And an important part of this process is also getting feedback. And that feedback can either come internally from yourself so you struggle to, to solve a problem.
So that’s feedback that, well, maybe you need to try another approach, or it can be feedback from other people who are ahead of you. So maybe a teacher or a friend who’s slightly better at math, uh, suggests well, you’ve, you’ve, you’ve taken this step to solve that equation. Let’s try the other approach instead.
And that kind of feedback improves our understanding. And then the, the third step after that is the, the memorization. So once we figured out the right principles, the right ways of doing things, We need to memorize those so that we can apply them next time. Next time we come across a similar problem, and there are several techniques for improving memorization.
A very important one is, uh, called space repetition. It basically means that we don’t do it all in one go, but we space out our practice over time. So maybe we do one or exercise the first day, another exercise the second day, and then, then we take it like an even bigger break. And during that break, our unconscious break keeps processing and then maybe we try it again on the fifth.
And we will suddenly notice, Hey, I, I got it. Like in the back of mind something happens and, and it just clicked. Right? So that’s, uh, that’s very important to really build the long term, long term memory. And then, yeah, the, the last final step is actually applying it, applying it in real life, cuz. When you, even, when you know how to solve a math equation, if it’s, if it’s not gonna be useful for you in real life, after a couple of months, you will probably have forgotten how to solve it.
So you have to find some kind of exercise for you that leads you towards a goal you want to entertain. Maybe it’s like you want to construct a shed next to your house and you need to do some, some math to figure out like how much, how much wood you want to, uh, you need to buy, for example. So, um, really apply it.
Real life and find a practice, a deliberate practice that you can do periodically to practice that skill and drill, drill down on that skill. So those, those four steps, like first, uh, mapping it out, building the initial understanding solid, solidifying the memory, and finally like applying it in real life, following those speeds up the learning of, of any, of any skill or, um, or subject.
Dan Moore: Dom, Three days ago I downloaded the traverse.link onto my computer and began to create my own process here following what you suggested here, and I can share with our listeners that one of the beauties of the whole process is because it’s our own words, we tend to believe ourselves more than we might believe someone else.
The other thing that do does so well is he uses the ancient technique of a flashcard. And most of us remember learning our multiplication tables where the teacher would hold up the card and say, three times four is, and the class would yell it out. But because they’re flashcards that we’ve created ourselves, it has terminology, even humor.
It can help us remember something in, in a much better way. So I commend you on, on the program that you’ve created. It’s very easy to use. I get an email from you every day asking how I’m doing, which is really nice. So that’s part of the feedback too. Yeah, it’s great. It’s great to hear that and since I’m a real believer that our limiting beliefs hold us back in so many areas, this is very, very fruitful.
I think it’s a tremendous project.
Dominic Zijlstra: And I, I love what you mentioned, like really making it, uh, making it personal is so very, very helpful for, for learning, because very often when we learn from a textbook, it’s abstract concepts, which are not very, very memorable, not very easy to understand, but instead, like humans, Are very good at learning by, by stories.
Like tell us a particular story about a CEO that make it, make it made a particular mistake. Um, and the company fails and we will, we will remember that, oh, when I have to run a company, I need to do things in, in a way that avoids that particular mistake. So we will remember much better from stories. And this personalization that you mentioned, writing it in your own words, Adding humor, adding all kinds of weird personal details is really, um, helps so much to acquire, uh, new, new skills to learn new subjects, right?
Dan Moore: And I love the space repetition, this layering of the learning. In fact, I was watching my almost three year old granddaughter the other day as she was putting a puzzle together. And she’s done the puzzle probably 50 times and as soon as she finished it, guess what she wanted to do? She wanted to do it again because that repetition helped build her confidence.
And then when she gets to a harder puzzle, she’ll know she has the experience of doing puzzles and that space, repetition is a big part of that cuz it builds our internal confidence that we can do so much better. If we don’t learn to add and subtract, it’s really hard to do multiplication in division.
But if we learn to add and subtract, then we can go to those next layers. Then we go to algebra, we go to geometry, trigonometry, et cetera. But it all builds, and I think that’s such an important thing. It also occurs to me that when we’re studying for an exam, To get the right answer because there’s no application of it after that.
That’s why that in five minutes that answer can be gone. So really sound stuff you got going on here.
Dominic Zijlstra: Yeah, exactly. And I love that your granddaughter actually figured out this, like the important of repetition and especially space repetition, um, herself and I think children are probably in some ways much better at that than we are. We have to unlearn some, some bad habits that we picked up in, in the education system first before, um, before getting to learn in an effective way.
Dan Moore: Building blocks. So important. Yeah. Well, let’s talk a little bit more about, about yourself for a second. Do you have a routine in the morning? How do, how do you start your day?
Dominic Zijlstra: Yeah. Um, I picked up a, a new habit a few months ago, which, um, before going to bed, I will try to set my unconscious to think about a particular problem that I’m, that I’m wrestling with. And then when I wake up in the morning, I just sit down and meditate for, for 10, 15 minutes, and I have a little, um, notepad in my, in my hand, and I just write down everything that comes to mind.
And so very often it turns out, Basically when I was sleeping, doing nothing, my unconscious has come up with some new approach or, or creative solution to the, the problem I was, I was struggling with, and I mean, our conscious unconscious does that all the time, but because our bad habits, like the first thing we do in the morning, we pick up our, our smartphone, right?
And look at our emails. Basically all the work of our unconscious is, is gone. Taking that time to, to meditate and to reflect a bit in the morning helps us recover some of the, the power and the work that our unconscious is, is already doing. So I, I found that a very, very, Helpful habits and generally I like to take things quite slowly in the morning.
So yeah, after the meditation I do some yoga exercises basically to get, get the blood flowing and slowly get started. And after that I will sit down again and, um, write down everything I’ve. Learned in the past day. Usually during the date, there’s a couple of things I will just write a quick note off, but I won’t have time to actually dive deeper into that.
So then the next morning I will look at those few bullet points and come back and write in full sentences. What I’ve actually learned and what I still need to explore. So that’s, that’s basically how I learn my day. And then after that, of course, the actual to-do lists starts. And I usually try to have one, one item every day.
Like that’s the, the one thing that I need to do. Uh, and once I finish that, the day is good and the rest of the day I still have to finish, um, to finish less important tasks.
Dan Moore: Those are like the bonus achievements if you get the most important one done. Exactly. Well, let’s, let’s dig a little deeper into this.
Um, how you get your mindset, your subconscious mind working on something during the night. How do, how do you do that without it keeping you awake as you worry about that problem?
Dominic Zijlstra: This has actually been a tricky one, and I’m still trying to, to figure out, so I, what I do is in the evening I will, To a bit of focusing on the specific problem.
So I, I will identify at least one problem that I want my unconscious to work on. But then of course, I don’t want to to be awake because I’m thinking about it all the time. So after I focus, I will actually do another 10 minutes of meditation as well, just. Thinking about nothing, just focusing on the breathing.
And I found that helps empty my mind while still keeping my unconscious focused on, on what I, what I wanted to think about during that. And, and it’s not like a 100% guarantee that it will come up with creative solutions, but it does work well enough that every now and then I get like a surprising idea or a new approach that I hadn’t thought of.
Dan Moore: Somebody was described the way our minds work, they’re like a sandbox in a children’s playground that by the end of the day it is just a mess. It’s uneven, there’s holes in it, there’s leaves and weeds, and maybe even occasional animal in there. But then during the night, somebody comes through and rakes the whole thing, cleans it out, smooths the sand, and if we can avoid tracking it in the next morning first thing, then we can find some really cool treasures in there.
Dominic Zijlstra: Wow. I love that analogy. Yeah. I think it describes very well what I, what I try to do.
Dan Moore: You know, you’ve been an entrepreneur, you’ve started this business now, and I think it’s a subscription model. Is that right? After an initial trial period?
Dominic Zijlstra: Yeah, that’s that’s correct. Yeah.
Dan Moore: But I’m wondering what advice you might have for some of our listeners that are kind of stuck right now. They are discouraged. Any suggestions for those that are just not sure where to, where to go next?
Dominic Zijlstra: Yeah, so I think it’s very important and human nature. We always want to help people and when we help people, it not only makes the person we help feel better, it also makes, makes us feel better. And it doesn’t really matter what the scale of helping is, if I can.
Help just one person next door who, who’s in need of something, and I can help them with a, even with a, with a kind word or something very small, that just improves my, my, my mindset and my, almost my, my belief in, in the world so much that it, that it empower, empowers you to, to do much, much bigger things.
So I think even when we’re overwhelmed with everything bad that’s happening in the world, there’s always something, even if it’s very small, someone who, who we can help. Once we do that, we’ve discovered new ways of how we can help more people. Maybe that’s by building a business that we can scale and we can reach a lot of people With that, we can help a lot of people.
Maybe it’s by writing, by starting a block, um, that that will be read by a lot of people. Can help, can help people. Or maybe it’s something much smaller. Maybe it’s in the local community. You can, maybe there are, there are refugees in, in, in your area and maybe you can help or find a place for those.
There’s always things we can, we can help. And I think, I think helping is the basis for, for most successful and like entrepreneurial endeavors, but it also is what’s most empowering in our, the most empowering thing we can do in our daily life. So I would, I would say always focus on, not on yourself, but on who’s out there, whom you can help right now and go from.
Dan Moore: I love that, Dom. Well, you have got so much to offer, a very young person having a big impact on our world. So I wanna thank you for being a guest with us today.
Dominic Zijlstra: Thanks, Dan. It was, it was really great to be here. And, uh, yeah, I think I’ve gotten at least as much, uh, as many new insights from you as I’ve been able to offer here.
So thank you for that. And I just wanna mention it actually created on action Catalyst traverse.link. There’s a little bonus for listeners that will, um, help you remember better what you’ll read. So there’s a little bonus.
Dan Moore: Okay. That sounds great. Well, thank you so much, Dominic.
Dominic Zijlstra: Thank you. Thank you then. It was great to be here.