Ultralearning by Scott H. Young: Summary and Notes

Ultralearning “For those who know how to use technology wisely, it is the easiest time in history to teach yourself something new.”

Rating: 8/10

Related: Deep WorkMaking It StickHow We LearnUnderstanding How We Learn

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Ultralearning Short Summary

Ultralearning by Scott H. Young is a book that will teach you one of the most valuable skills of the 21st century – learning fast. Scott details the experiences of people who have applied the skill of ultralearning and in the process shares valuable lessons that we can all apply in our own learning pursuits. A great book with many valuable lessons.

Why Ultralearning Matters?

Ultralearning: A strategy of acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.

Ultralearning isn’t easy and you will have to set up a schedule to pursue it. The goal of becoming an ultralearner will strain you mentally, emotionally, and even physically. You have to be prepared for all that.

Reasons to engage in ultralearning:

  • It will help you accelerate your career, and to take advantage of new opportunities
  • It will help you realize your potential and overcome limiting beliefs about the self by changing your own self-conception
  • With ultralearning, you don’t have to face the crushing burden of college tuition costs
  • Ultralearning will also help you deal with a changing world in which professionals need new skills to stay relevant

There are three ways to pursue ultralearning: part-time, during gaps in work, and to integrate ultralearning principles into the time and energy that you already devote to learning.

“The core of the ultralearning strategy is intensity and a willingness to prioritize effectiveness. Whether this happens on a full-time schedule or just a couple hours per week is completely up to you.”

How to Become an Ultralearner

There are nine universal principles that make ultralearning possible:

  1. Metalearning: First draw a map
  2. Focus: Sharpen your knife
  3. Directness: Go straight ahead
  4. Drill: Attack your weakest point
  5. Retrieval: Test to learn
  6. Feedback: Don’t dodge the punches
  7. Retention: Don’t fill a leaky bucket
  8. Intuition. Dig deep before building up
  9. Experimentation. Explore outside your comfort zone
“Beyond principles and tactics is a broader ultralearning ethos. It’s one of taking responsibility for your own learning: deciding what you want to learn, how you want to learn it, and crafting your own plan to learn what you need to. You’re the one in charge, and you’re the one who’s ultimately responsible for the results you generate.”

Metalearning: First Draw a Map

ultralearning - metalearning Metalearning is learning about learning.

“Being able to see how a subject works, what kinds of skills and information must be mastered, and what methods are available to do so more effectively is at the heart of success of all ultralearning projects.”

Break down your metalearning project into three questions: Why? What? and How?

In answering why, ask yourself why you are learning and what that implies for how you should approach the topic. The what relates to how the knowledge in your subject is structured.

A good strategy in answering this question is to write down on a sheet of paper three columns with the headings “Concepts”, “Facts”, and “Procedures” and follow this up with a brainstorming session.

During the brainstorming session, underline the concepts, facts, and procedures that you think will be the most difficult to understand.

Finally, the how relates to how you are actually going to learn. There are two strategies to answer how you’ll learn something: Benchmarking and the Emphasize/exclude method.

  • Benchmarking: Finding common ways in which other people learn the same subject or topic.
  • The Emphasize/Exclude Method: Finding areas of study that align with the goals that you identified as part of your study.

Focus: Sharpen Your Knife

“In the realm of great intellectual accomplishments, an ability to focus quickly and deeply is nearly ubiquitous.”

Focusing is hard and most people who try to focus face three problems: starting, sustaining, and optimizing. To deal with failure to start i.e. procrastination:

  • Use the Pomodoro technique: twenty or so minutes of focus followed by a 5-minute break
  • Convince yourself to get over just five minutes on the task

To deal with failing to sustain:

  • Break your work into study periods to create the proper balance in your learning
  • Reduce distractions in your environment. Switch off the internet for instance

To deal with failure to create the right kind of focus:

  • Start small. If you can’t focus at all, start by experimenting with five minutes, for instance
  • Monitor your arousal levels. Some tasks like solving complex math problems require low arousal while others not so much

Directness: Go Straight Ahead

Directness: The idea of learning being tied closely to the situation or context you want to use it in.

For example: When you want to learn something, you immerse yourself in the environment where the skill is practiced.

“The easiest way to learn directly is to simply spend a lot of time doing the thing you want to become good at.”

Ultralearner tactics to learn directly:

  • Project-based learning. This involves organizing your learning around producing something
  • Immersive learning. This involves immersing yourself in an environment where a language is spoken
  • The flight simulator method. When direct practice is impossible, create an environment where the experience can be simulated
  • Overkill approach. Increase the challenge such that the skill level required is wholly contained within the goal

Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point

Drill: Breaking apart the skill you want to master and learning the various elements in isolation.

To apply the drill strategy, identify the rate determining step i.e. the bottleneck that controls the speed at which you become more proficient overall.

“Rate-determining steps in learning—where one component of a complex skill determines your overall level of performance—are a powerful reason to apply drills. However, they aren’t the only one. Even if there isn’t one isolatable aspect of the skill that is holding back your performance, it may still be a good idea to apply drills.”

Drill strategies:

  • Time slicing. Isolate a slice in time of a longer sequence of actions. For example, musicians identify the hardest part of a composition practice it separately before reintegrating it as part of the entire song
  • Cognitive components. Find a cognitive component required to learn a new skill and focus on it
  • Copycat. This involves copying part of the skill from what other people have already done
  • Magnifying glass method. This method involves spending more time on a component of a skill than you otherwise would
  • Prerequisite chaining. Involves starting too hard and only learning prerequisites later as they are needed

Retrieval: Test To learn

Ultralearning - retrival Testing yourself by trying to retrieve information without looking at the text is the best study method. It outperforms concept mapping and even reviewing materials repeatedly.

You can increase your recall rate by taking a test even before the class begins.

This works because by confronting a problem that you don’t know already, your brain will refocus attentional resources to spot information that looks like solutions to the problems that you’ve already encountered.

How to practice retrieval:

  1. Flashcards. Flashcards are an amazing way to learn paired associations between questions and answers
  2. Free Recall. After learning something try to write all that you can remember on a piece of paper
  3. The question-book method. Take notes by rephrasing rather than writing done the exact wordings
  4. Self-generated challenges. Create challenges for yourself to solve later
  5. Closed-book learning. Limit your ability to look for hints

 Feedback: Don’t Dodge the Bullet

Feedback is a powerful learning tool.

“What often separated the ultralearning strategy from more conventional approaches was the immediacy, accuracy, and intensity of the feedback being provided.”

What matters when it comes to feedback is the type of feedback as opposed to the amount of feedback.

“If feedback tells you what you’re doing wrong or how to fix it, it can be a potent tool. But feedback often backfires when it is aimed at a person’s ego. Praise, a common type of feedback that teachers often use (and students enjoy), is usually harmful to further learning.”

Ultraleaners seek aggressive feedback while others opt for weaker forms of feedback. How to improve your feedback:

  1. Noise cancelation. Noise is caused by random factors that you shouldn’t overreact to, for example, a blog post might become popular not because of the quality of writing but because someone promoted it
  2. Hitting the difficulty sweet spot. Find a sweet spot between easy and difficult as it is easier to maintain your motivation that way
  3. Metafeedback. Evaluating the overall success of the strategy that you are trying to use
  4. High-intensity rapid feedback. Throw yourself into a high-intensity rapid feedback situation to provoke yourself into learning more than you might otherwise

Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket

The forgetting curve: We tend to forget things incredibly quickly after learning them with the steepest decline happening right after learning.

How to prevent forgetting:

  1. Spacing.  Spread your learning intervals over more periods. Don’t cram everything at once
  2. Proceduralization. Emphasize a core set of information more frequently to make it procedural
  3. Overlearning. Overlearning can extend the durability of a skill
  4. Mnemonics

Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up

How to develop intuition:

  • Don’t give up on hard problems easily. The more you push through hard problems, the easier your problem-solving skills get
  • Prove things to understand them. Your understanding can be an illusion and the only way to know for sure is to prove your knowledge of things
  • Always start with a concrete example. Humans learn mostly by doing so it is important to create concrete examples
  • Don’t fool yourself. Ask lots of questions to check your understanding

Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone

“When starting to learn a new skill, often it’s sufficient simply to follow the example of someone who is further along than you.”

As your skills develop, it is no longer possible to follow the example of others. At such a point you need to develop your own path through experimentation.

The three types of experimentation:

  1. Experimenting with learning resources. Tryout different learning resources and see which one works best for you
  2. Experiment with technique. Ask yourself, “how can I learn this”?
  3. Experiment with style. Research the different learning styles that exist and see which works best for you

How to experiment:

  1. Copy, then create. Emulate an example that you appreciate by deconstructing it and seeing how it works
  2. Compare methods side-by-side. Try different methods to see which work best
  3. Introduce new constraints. Add limitations to force yourself to develop new capacities
  4. Find your superpower in the hybrid of unrelated skills. Find two skills that are unrelated and combine them to create a special advantage
  5. Explore the extremes. With any skill, many of the possibilities are in the extreme so push yourself towards that end