Ultralearning: 9 Steps to Mastery (Scott Young)

Ultralearning book cover

Ultra Learning (2019), lays out a strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge in a way that is both self-directed and intense. Scott Young, the author, explains that it’s a strategy to get good at something as quickly as possible.

Bullet Summary

  • Ultralearning is a strategy to learn as quickly and as effectively as possible to cut your time short on your way to mastery
  • Ultralearning can be enjoyable, but it’s also as likely to be challenging, intense, and tough
  • Ultralearning focuses on lots of repeated practice

Summary

About the Author: Scott Young defines himself as an author, programmer, and entrepreneur. He has been writing on his own blog since 2006.

1. What is Ultralearning?

Ultralearning is a strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.

And, adds Scott Young:

The core of the ultralearning strategy is intensity, and a willingness to prioritize effectiveness.

More on what ultralearning really is:

  • Ultralearning is a strategy. as all strategies, it’s contextual, so it can be suited for certain challenges and situations, but not others
  • Ultralearning is self-directed. it’s about you. You decide what to learn and why
  • Ultralearning is intense. this is not about “flow”, it’s about learning both quickly and effectively, seeking rapid progress with great efficiency

Now, let’s get down to the concrete steps for an ultralearning project:

2. The 9 Steps of Ultralearning

The nine principles are…

  1. 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.
  2. 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. The problems related to focus are three:
    1. Starting: tell yourself you can do just a few minutes before taking a break. That’s often enough to get you going. Then you can move to the Pomodoro Technique: 20 minutes of focus and 5 minutes break.
    2. Sustaining (aka: getting distracted): don’t worry about having long stretches of time. Learn to focus as much as possible even when you have little time.
    3. Optimizing: complex tasks may benefit from low arousals, such as no noise whatsoever, but simpler tasks may benefit from a place like a workshop. But ultimately, you need to test it for yourself
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
    1. Forward testing: Retrieval helps you learn and remember even before you even begin studying! 
    2. Take notes as questions instead of answers
  6. 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.
    The 3 types of feedback are:
    1. Outcome feedback: less useful, but can help
    2. Informational feedback: provides more precise information on what you did well or bad
    3. Corrective feedback: provides information on what you did well or not good, plus how you can fix it
    4. Praise can be harmful: “When feedback steers into evaluations of you as an individual (e.g., “You’re so smart!” or “You’re lazy”), it usually has a negative impact on learning”
  7. Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket. Understand what you forget and why. Learn to remember things not just for now but forever.
  8. 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.
    1. Struggle timer: don’t give up too early, give yourself a struggle time during which you’ll just keep enduring and trying
    2. Prove things: don’t just understand things, but try to prove them
    3. Always start with a concrete example: most people learn abstract, general rules only after being exposed to many concrete examples. When you don’t have an example, try to come up with one. If you can’t you haven’t learned the principle
    4. Ask yourself lots of questions, even dumb ones: don’t fool yourself, and you’re the easiest one to fool
  9. Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone. The mindset of experimentation is a more advanced form of a growth mindset from Carol Dweck. It doesn’t just assume growth is possible, but enacts a strategy.
    All these principles are only starting points. World-class mastery comes from exploring possibilities they haven’t yet imagined. And the better you become, the more you need to experiment.
    1. Copy and create
    2. Compare methods side by side
    3. Introduce new constraints
    4. Combine two different skills
    5. Explore the extremes

Talent VS Practice: Both Matter

We know this:

Some authors say that the brain is only malleable to a limited extent (Pinker, 2002).
While some others, especially the self-help gurus, like to say that talent matters little or nothing.

Scott is in the middle.
He says:

I take a middle position between those two extremes.
I think that natural talents exist and that they undoubtedly influence the results we see (especially at extreme levels, as in the case of Tao). I also believe that strategy and method matter, too.

Sensible position, I think.

“Flow” is BS and Useless for Ultralearning

Alright, that title is a clickbait :).
Scott Young never said that, of course. 
However, it is true that “flow“, as pioneered by research psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has been somewhat over-hyped. Especially when it comes to actually learn things. 

Peak performance researcher K. Anders Ericsson, the researcher behind deliberate practice and author of “Peak“, argues that flow has characteristics that are “inconsistent with the demands of deliberate practice for monitoring explicit goals and feedback and opportunities for error correction.

Says Scott:

My own thought is that a flow state is not impossible during ultralearning. Many cognitive activities associated with learning are in the range of difficulty that makes flow possible or even likely. However, I also agree with Ericsson that learning often involves entering into situations in which the difficulty makes flow impossible.

Bullet Wisdom 

  • If you’re too busy, you can use ultralearning with part-time projects, learning sabbaticals, and reimagining existing learning efforts
  • Break up your sessions

Says Scott Young:

Researchers generally find that people retain more of what they learn when practice is broken into different studying periods than when it is crammed together. Similarly, the phenomenon of interleaving suggests that even within a solid block of focus, it can make sense to alternate between different aspects of the skill or knowledge to be remembered.

  • Duolingo (and other cool apps) might not help you learn

Duolingo is built to increase usage, not to make learning more efficient. 
Also see my review on the Blinkist app, which I suspect as being very similar.

  • You need practical examples to learn

That’s why this website and Power University are chock-full of real-life examples.

CONS

  • One example felt just a tad forced 

Sometimes it felt like the author painted one or two of the success stories in a way to make them seem more impressive.
For example, he says: 

Half in disbelief, she glanced at the referee, expecting him to indicate that Kasparov had cheated. Yet the referee didn’t challenge the grand master. Reeling from the move, Polgár lost the game.

We don’t know if Polgar lost the game because of that touch. 
The author also seems to frame Polgar as better than Kasparov, but Polgar, albeit a prodigy and the best female chess player, never became a world champion.

But it’s truly small stuff, otherwise, there are no real “cons”.

PROS

  • Treasure throve to reach mastery

For those who want to reach mastery, “Ultralearning” provides the tools, the mindsets, and even the encouraging stories (but then again, my guess is that most ultralearners need no encouraging stories).

Indeed, I added it in my list of best psychology books under the section of “psychology of achievement”.

  • Great author

And by “great author” I mean Scott Young provides a level-headed analysis grounded in science, intelligent analysis, and rational thinking. 

Ultralearning Review

Ultralearning is a mix of learning strategies, studying and learning tips, plus evidence-based success stories for those who need some inspiration.

Check the best books collection or get the book on Amazon

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