“Ultralearning” by Scott Young – Book Summary
Ultralearning by Scott H. Young teaches you how to learn things quickly and effectively, so you can improve valuable skills, acquire new knowledge, and ultimately become a better version of yourself faster.
The book starts off with fascinating examples of so-called ultralearners – people who achieved remarkable learning feats in short periods of time. It then defines what ultralearning is (in short, a strategy for aggressive, self-directed learning), tells you why it matters, and gives you nine principles for becoming an ultralearner yourself.
The art of improving skills and acquiring knowledge quickly is essential for living a life and pursuing a career you love.
Think of it this way: The better you are at the skill of learning, the faster you can improve any area of your life. And Ultralearning by Scott H. Young is a highly practical and well-researched guide on optimizing this very skill of learning.
Who is Ultralearning for?
- Anyone interested in learning things faster
- Anyone who wants to future-proof their career
- Anyone who enjoys the ideas of deliberate practice and/or deep work
1. What is Ultralearning?
“ULTRALEARNING: A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.”
That’s the short definition of ultralearning – a strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.
- First, ultralearning is a strategy. Which means it’s a possible solution to a problem or challenge. It’s a tool that’s suited for certain situations and not others. Using a strategy is a choice, not a commandment.
- Second, ultralearning is self-directed. You decide what to learn and why.
- Third, ultralearning is intense. It’s about learning quickly and effectively, at rapid speeds with great efficiency.
While this may sound abstract, the examples below will clarify the concept quickly.
2. Examples of Ultralearners
“Despite their idiosyncrasies, the ultralearners had a lot of shared traits. They usually worked alone, often toiling for months and years without much more than a blog entry to announce their efforts. Their interests tended toward obsession. They were aggressive about optimizing their strategies, fiercely debating the merits of esoteric concepts such as interleaving practice, leech thresholds, or keyword mnemonics. Above all, they cared about learning. Their motivation to learn pushed them to tackle intense projects, even if it often came at the sacrifice of credentials or conformity.”
The book shares various extreme and fascinating case studies of ultralearning. While these illustrate the power of ultralearning impressively, please understand that you won’t need to be as aggressive as these people to benefit from the principles of this strategy.
With that caveat out of the way, here are some examples of ultralearners…
- Scott Young, who learned MIT’s four-year computer science curriculum without taking classes in just one year, and who learned four languages in just one year. (He called these ultralearning projects The MIT Challenge and The Year Without English.)
- Benny Lewis, who learns new languages super quickly through fearless immersion.
- Eric Barone, who became a self-made millionaire nearly overnight after patiently acquiring the skills to develop his own online game.
- Tristan de Montebello, who went from very little experience to a finalist for the World Champion of Public Speaking in seven months.
- Nigel Richards, who became the French Scrabble World Champion without speaking French.
3. Why Should You Care?
“The first reason is for your work. You already expend much of your energy working to earn a living. In comparison, ultralearning is a small investment, even if you temporarily made it a full-time commitment. However, rapidly learning hard skills can have a greater impact than years of mediocre striving on the job. Whether you want to change careers, take on new challenges, or accelerate your progress, ultralearning is a powerful tool.”
“The second reason is for your personal life. How many of us have dreams of playing an instrument, speaking a foreign language, becoming a chef, writer, or photographer? Your deepest moments of happiness don’t come from doing easy things; they come from realizing your potential and overcoming your own limiting beliefs about yourself. Ultralearning offers a path to master those things that will bring you deep satisfaction and self-confidence.”
Ultralearning is all about learning skills and acquiring knowledge quickly and effectively.
Why is that important? Because that’s what becoming better versions of ourselves is all about. We want to learn to become more charismatic, empathetic, understanding, loving, kind, compassionate, and so on. We want to learn to listen with more understanding, to show up with more presence, to speak with more authority, to love with more passion.
Life is all about learning. About acquiring new skills. About developing ourselves and becoming better.
The faster we can learn, the faster we are able to grow as human beings. That’s why learning to learn is so essential. And that’s why this book is such a great resource.
4. An Added Benefit…
“There’s an added benefit to ultralearning that transcends even the skills one learns with it. Doing hard things, particularly things that involve learning something new, stretches your self-conception. It gives you confidence that you might be able to do things that you couldn’t do before. My feeling after my MIT Challenge wasn’t just a deepened interest in math and computer science but an expansion in possibility: If I could do this, what else could I do that I was hesitant to try before?
Learning, at its core, is a broadening of horizons, of seeing things that were previously invisible and of recognizing capabilities within yourself that you didn’t know existed. I see no higher justification for pursuing the intense and devoted efforts of the ultralearners I’ve described than this expansion of what is possible. What could you learn if you took the right approach to make it successful? Who could you become?”
5. But What About Talent?
Maybe you want to learn Spanish, improve at Calculus, or play the piano… but you’re just not talented. You just can’t do it. You just don’t have the biological makeup, the right genes.
Bullshit. As the science of deliberate practice undeniably shows, innate talent – if it even exists in any meaningful way – is highly overrated.
Skills are a matter of building mental representations in the brain, of creating new neural circuitry. And unless you’re suffering from some weird brain disease, you can created those neural circuits just like everyone else.
You’ve learned how to walk and talk – you possess the ability to learn, now it’s just about practice and about pushing yourself beyond your current capabilities.
6. How to Become an Ultralearner (the 9 Principles)
“There are nine universal principles that underlie the ultralearning projects described so far. Each embodies a particular aspect of successful learning, and I describe how ultralearners maximize the effectiveness of the principle through the choices they make in their projects.”
“If several people or, better yet, every ultralearner I encountered, did a certain thing in a certain way, it was much stronger evidence that I had stumbled upon a general principle. I then checked those principles against the scientific literature. Are there mechanisms and findings from cognitive science to support the tactics I saw? Better yet, have there been controlled experiments comparing one approach to learning with another? The scientific research supports many of the learning strategies employed by the ultralearners I witnessed. This suggests that ultralearners, with their ruthless focus on efficiency and effectiveness, may have landed on some universal principles in the art of learning.”
The nine principles are…
- Metalearning: First Draw a Map. Start by learning how to learn the subject or skill you want to tackle. Learn how to do good research and how to draw on your past competencies to learn new skills more easily.
- Focus: Sharpen Your Knife. Cultivate the ability to concentrate. Carve out chunks of time when you can focus on learning, and make it easy to just do it.
- Directness: Go Straight Ahead. Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at. Don’t trade if off for other tasks, just because those are more convenient or comfortable.
- Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point. Be ruthless in improving your weakest points. Break down complex skills into small parts; then master those parts and build them back together again.
- Retrieval: Test to Learn. Testing isn’t simply a way of assessing knowledge but a way of creating it. Test yourself before you feel confident, and push yourself to actively recall information rather than passively review it.
- Feedback: Don’t Dodge the Punches. Feedback is harsh and uncomfortable. Know how to use it without letting your ego get in the way. Extract the signal from the noise, so you know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
- Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket. Understand what you forget and why. Learn to remember things not just for now but forever.
- Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up. Develop your intuition through play and exploration of concepts and skills. Understand how understanding works, and avoid having recourse to cheap tricks of memorization to avoid deeply knowing things.
- Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone. All of those principles are only starting points. True mastery comes not just from following the path trodden by others but from exploring possibilities they haven’t yet imagined.
In the remainder of this summary, we are highlighting four of these principles.
7. Principle #3: Directness
“Directness is the idea of learning being tied closely to the situation or context you want to use it in.”
“We want to speak a language but try to learn mostly by playing fun apps, rather than conversing with actual people. We want to work on collaborative, professional programs but mostly code scripts in isolation. We want to become great speakers, so we buy a book on communication, rather than practice presenting. In all these cases the problem is the same: directly learning the thing we want feels too uncomfortable, boring, or frustrating, so we settle from some book, lecture, or app, hoping it will eventually make us better at the real thing.”
“Directness is the hallmark of most ultralearning projects.”
Want to learn how to swim, dance, or play the guitar? Want to become a great marketer, businessman, painter?
The fastest way to improve such skills is to go direct – to actually swim, dance, or play the guitar. To practice marketing in the real world, start a company, or actually create a painting.
Sure, there’s a time and place for reading books or attending lectures, but the direct practice has to be there as well. And if you can’t practice the exact skill you’re trying to learn, practice something as close to the real thing as possible.
8. Principle #5: Retrieval
“Imagine you’re a student preparing for an exam. You have three choices about how you can allocate your limited studying time. First, you can review the material. You can look over your notes and book and study everything until you’re sure you’ll remember it. Second, you can test yourself. You can keep the book shut and try to remember what was in it. Finally, you can create a concept map. You can write out the main concepts in a diagram, showing how they’re organized and related to other items you need to study. If you can pick only one, which one should you choose to do best on the final exam?”
The results may surprise you. Testing yourself – trying to retrieve information without looking at the text – easily outperforms the other options. On questions based directly on the content of the text, those practicing free recall remember almost 50 percent more than the other groups.
That’s the importance of retrieval. Yes, trying to recall things from memory is a lot harder and feels more uncomfortable than simply reviewing a text. But it’s also a lot more effective.
Next time you’re trying to acquire a new piece of knowledge, use active retrieval over passive reviewing. When you’re reading a book, close it after reading a chapter and try to summarize the most important points off the top of your head.
9. Principle #6: Feedback
“Ultralearners acquire skills quickly because they seek aggressive feedback when others opt for practice that includes weaker forms of feedback or no feedback at all.”
To improve, you need to know how you’re doing. In other words, you need feedback. And the more and the higher quality feedback you’re getting, the quicker you’ll improve.
Fear of feedback is one of the biggest impediments to faster and more effective learning. Don’t let it hold you back. If you want to improve your public speaking, get in front of an audience and have your coach and listeners give you feedback. If you want to become a better lover, try out new things and see how your partner responds. If you want to become better at cooking, hire a coach to expose yourself to as much feedback as possible.
The more (high-quality) feedback you can get, the faster you’ll improve.
10. Principle #9: Experimentation
“Experimentation is the principle that ties all the others together. Not only does it make you try new things and think hard about how to solve specific learning challenges, it also encourages you to be ruthless in discarding methods that don’t work. Careful experimentation not only brings out your best potential, it also eliminates bad habits and superstitions by putting them to the test of real-world results.”
A mindset of experimentation is important for various reasons. For starters, experimenting allows you to jump into new endeavors with less fear – hey, it’s just an experiment after all! You don’t have to succeed at learning the new skill, you can just see how it goes and learn a thing or two about yourself.
It’s crucial to get started somewhere. Don’t expect to get it perfect the first time around. Just get your hands dirty. Treat it as an experiment. Tweak along the way.
This goes back to the idea of being direct. Don’t just read about ultralearning, actually get started with an ultralearning project. Experiment. See how it goes. Adjust along the way. Try new strategies. Figure out how to incorporate different principles into your approach.
As David J. Schwartz would put it: “Be a doer, not a don’ter.”
What Now? How to Get Started?
Intrigued by the idea of starting your own ultralearning project? Pick a skill you want to master and dive right in. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.
Now only will you improve your self-confidence (hey, if I can learn to do THIS, what else can I learn?) but you’ll improve your general meta-learning as well. You’ll become a better, faster, more efficient learner – and you’ll benefit from it for the rest of your life.
So, what’s your first ultralearning project going to be? Let me know in the comments below.
If you enjoyed this, here are some similar books you might enjoy.
- Deep Work by Cal Newport. Ultralearning requires deep focus and productivity. This book shows you how to get that.
- Peak by Anders Ericsson. Ultralearning is a form of deliberate practice, which is explained in detail in this book.
- A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley. If you’re interested in the science of acquiring and retaining knowledge (as opposed to learning skills), this book goes into great detail.
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