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Ultralearning by Scott Young – Book Review

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Have you ever read a book that was filled with great ideas but lacked any real methods for applying the lessons to your life?

Me too.

In Ultralearning, Scott Young successfully shares impressive, life-changing ideas. And he provides a step-by-step guide for specific actions you can take on each step of your learning journey. Ultralearning covers everything.

Scott lays out everything from the planning stage before you begin to the review process after you have completed your learning project. And he provides tips for each step along the way:

  • how to research the skills you really need
  • how to find the methods most likely to lead to your success
  • how to avoid procrastination
  • how to focus, study, and practice intentionally
  • how experimenting will help you master skills quickly

Ultralearning is really about mastering skills quickly and efficiently with laser-focus.

Who is Scott Young?

Scott Young became “internet famous” when he successfully completed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s four-year computer science curriculum. But instead of taking the normal 48 months that an MIT student would take to complete the coursework, Scott did it in only 12 months.

Taking lessons from his successful experiment, Scott has gone on to explore other projects. He learned 4 languages to conversational fluency in 1 year — Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Korean.

And he learned portrait drawing in 30 days. (More resources are at the bottom.)

Scott is honest about both his successes and failures.

He shares strategies he tried that didn’t work.

He shares methods that he implemented poorly and those that provided limited results.

He shares goals that he didn’t quite reach like when he set out to not speak English for an entire year during his 4 languages project.

Scott used his successes and failures to write Ultralearning.

What is Ultralearning?

Scott defines ultralearning as “A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.”

He provides plenty of personal anecdotes as well as stories from other successful ultralearners; the stories are both relevant and entertaining. The stories provide examples for how you can succeed in your own learning experiments.

Scott researched to find the common threads that run between ultralearners’ successes, and he used those commonalities to create a list of actionable steps that anyone can take to learn new skills quickly.

The traits that ultralearners share are long periods of intense and self-directed work, an aggressive pursuit of optimizing their strategies for learning, and active experimentation.

Scott warns that ultralearning isn’t easy — but it is worth the effort.

Ultralearning is primarily a strategy for learning effectively.

His strategies were developed through his personal experiences, interviews, and observations of other successful ultralearners. The steps in Ultralearning are also backed up by research in the fields of education and cognitive science.

In essence, ultralearning is a method for learning quickly and effectively by doing the hard work.

2 Reasons Why Ultralearning Matters

In the opening chapter of Ultralearning, Scott has a section titled The Case for Ultralearning where he provides 2 primary reasons that ultralearning is worth considering.

The first reason, Scott says, is for your work. You spend much of your energy working to earn money. Compared to working, ultralearning is a relatively small investment of time and energy that can have much greater rewards.

Whether you want to change careers or just make faster progress in your current role, ultralearning can make a huge difference in your success.

“…rapidly learning hardskills can have a greater impact than years of mediocre striving on the job.” – Scott Young, Ultralearning

The second reason Scott provides is for your personal benefit.

“How many of us have dreams of playing an instrument, speaking a foreign language, becoming a chef, writer, or photographer? Your deepest moments of hapiness don’t come from doing easy things; they come from realizing your potential and overcoming your own limiting beliefs about yourself.” – Scott Young, Ultralearning

While that quote speaks directly to the untapped potential many of us feel, Ultralearning is not a self-help book. It’s a guide for creating a plan of action to achieve your goals faster than you thought was possible.

The 9 Steps for Ultralearning

Scott provides a clear path for learning effectively from start to finish. The 9 steps each get their own chapter filled with anecdotes, tips, warnings, and actionable steps.

Meta-learning: First Draw a Map

The meta-learning phase is for researching the skills you want to learn (to ensure you focus on the important things) and the methods you will use to learn those skills. Scott provides tips on the amount of time you should spend researching before you start and shares ways to avoid procrastination and “analysis paralysis” during your research phase.

The main goal of this phase is to know the concepts, facts, and procedures you’ll need in order to master the skill you’re learning:

  • What do you really need to understand?
  • What do you need to memorize?
  • What do you need to be able to do?

The meta-learning step is necessary to give you clarity about the skills you actually need and the methods you’ll use before you start working on a project.

But you’re free at any time to make changes. Learning is dynamic. If something isn’t working, modify your plan and keep going.

Focus: Sharpen Your Knife

In the spirit of Deep Work by Cal Newport, this section of Ultralearning is about focusing deeply on the skills you’re building.

Creating a plan for your project includes scheduling time before you begin which prepares you to just do the work. Knowing that you have a limited amount of time to learn a skill motivates you to use your time well and stay on task.

This chapter has several tips for avoiding and overcoming procrastination and the distractions that result from three sources: your environment, your task, and your mind.

This is a short chapter, but the effects of proper focus cannot be overstated.

Directness: Go Straight Ahead

This step is about doing the thing you want to be good at. Scott emphasizes taking action over passively trying to absorb from books or videos. Taking in information is a necessary part of learning, but doing is the most important component.

By embracing the difficulty of learning a hard skill, you gain a level of proficiency that someone who only reads a textbook or watches a video cannot hope to achieve.

Scott warns that learning quickly is only half of the equation. The other half is direct practice and taking action.

Do the thing.

Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point

Drilling focuses on each individual aspect of a skill.

Using basketball as an analogy, free-throws are just one part of the skill of “playing basketball”. But it’s an extremely important aspect. Practicing free-throws over and again to reach proficiency feeds back into your basketball abilities and makes you a better overall player.

The difficulty in drilling is not only that we prefer to avoid repetitive practice, but also that we are forced to critique our own abilities and find flaws. This takes mental effort and humility.

But, Scott explains, the things that are mentally strenuous provide the greatest benefits to learning.

Retrieval: Test to Learn

Again focusing on active learning over passively taking in information, Scott provides scientific studies that show that exerting the mental effort to remember (retrieve) information results in much better scores on tests than simply reviewing the material passively.

Scott gives several methods for practicing retrieval including “basics” like using flashcards (with some important changes) and a method called “free recall” where you write down everything you can remember immediately after taking in new information.

I wish I’d read this chapter before I went to college.

A common theme in this chapter (and the book) is the importance of taking action.

Feedback: Don’t Dodge the Punches

Criticism is scary. Nobody likes receiving it, but it is absolutely necessary to improve any skill.

Scott states that feedback is one of the most consistently common strategies that ultralearners use. For best results, feedback should be immediate, accurate, and intense.

Feedback leads to growth. A lack of feedback results in stagnation.

While feedback is important, not all feedback should be weighted equally. Scott provides some methods for getting good feedback, knowing what to pay attention to, and what to ignore.

Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket

A book on learning wouldn’t be complete without a chapter dedicated to memory.

Great retention is the result of a previous step in the ultralearning process: retrieval. Through active efforts to recall information, you commit that information to long-term memory.

Ultralearners know that forgetting is, as Scott says, “the default, not the exception.” There are specific strategies for dealing with the problem of forgetting.

One of the many methods Scott recommends is spaced repetition where learning is spread out over longer intervals. Anyone who has ever crammed to pass a test and then immediately forgotten the information knows how quickly information can be “stored” then lost forever.

Scott explains that memorizing facts isn’t all that useful. Instead, he recommends that through focused repetition, you commit both mental and physical processes to long-term memory. Only then can you build your intuition about a subject or skill.

And it is this intuition that really makes the expert stand out.

Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up

This is one of my favorite sections.

Scott shares how understanding works from the ground up and provides ways to know that you know something.

In ultralearning, memorization has its place, but memorization is no substitute for deep understanding and comprehension which leads to intuition. Building your intuition allows you to make conceptual connections that will give you a huge advantage in your field.

Scott explains what he calls the “Feynman Technique” — a method of questioning the most basic assumptions you have about your own understanding in order to find the limits of your knowledge. Once you know the limits, you fill in the gaps. By repeating this process, you know and understand increasingly more.

Scott provides many methods for uncovering your own lack of knowledge, but the most important message is: don’t fool yourself.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. – Richard Feynman, Cargo Cult Science

Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone

Experimentation is where learning becomes dynamic.

While there are many skills to learn and many methods within a specific skill (painting with oil versus acrylics, for example), experimentation is where you find your unique style.

Scott argues that true mastery comes from active, rapid experimentation. He also provides practical methods for avoiding the branching complexity that arises from the realistic problem of having too many options and not enough time.

Scott states that “experimentation is the principle that ties all the others together.”

Experimentation allows you to actively learn what works for you and what doesn’t. And it helps you get out of your head and gain feedback from reality.

I Got No Time

Don’t have enough time in the day?

Scott has an entire section in the opening chapter called Finding Time for Ultralearning.

The book provides examples of people who followed extremely demanding self-imposed schedules as well as ultralearners who balanced their projects with a full-time job and children.

Many people worry that they don’t have enough time to devote to learning a new skill, but he says this isn’t a problem in practice.

Scott states that, while throwing 50 hours a week at learning a skill will provide faster results, that kind of time commitment is not necessary.

Instead, he recommends you focus on intensity and your “willingness to prioritize effectiveness”. Even a couple of hours each week can be extremely effective. A more “relaxed” schedule does not mean you will learn less, only that it will take longer.

Scott also recommends bringing ultralearning into the projects and skills you’re already pursuing.

If you’re working to advance your career or are already learning new skills, you can add the ideas presented in Ultralearning to make your current efforts more effective. Scott provides steps that can be applied to your “normal” life even if an ultralearning project doesn’t make sense for you right now.

Scott emphasizes that you don’t need months of uninterrupted free time to successfully master a new skill quickly. Instead, you need a guide that includes steps that anyone can do provided they are willing to create a plan, take action, and analyze what’s working well — or not — and use that information to make adjustments.

Your Skills and Your Money

Building skills increases your options in both your personal and professional life.

Whether you want to make more money with a side-hustle or just learn a skill for your own satisfaction, Ultralearning gives advice on how to create a learning plan that works for you — no matter your goals or the amount of time you can commit to your education.

Scott Young’s Ultralearning provides an actionable guide to learn more faster so you can earn more and lead a more fulfilling life.

Resources

 

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Lyle

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