Ultralearning Book Summary (Optimize How You Learn New Things)

cody

Imagine you could optimize how you learn.

I’m intrigued by this idea because of the implications. If I can learn better, I can improve most aspects of my life faster. As humans, we only get a short amount of time on this earth, so optimizing that time is really valuable. Time is one of the only resources it’s impossible to buy more of.

When I first heard about Ultralearning by Scott H. Young, I was immediately curious. Could this book help me improve my ability to learn?

After reading, the answer was a definitive yes.

Scott has developed a framework for optimizing learning that you can apply to most subjects. However, this framework is not something you read about once and quickly implement. It’s quite complicated and isn’t a step by step process you mindlessly follow.

After finishing the book for the first time, I knew I had to go through it again, outline the key points and strategies, and then put them together into a document that I could reference. I knew I needed to do this so the information would stick, and I could apply the Ultralearning framework to the various projects I’m working on. That’s why I’m writing this blog post.

I love to learn new things. I get a ton of joy out of it.

While reading, I had an epiphany. Most projects I work on have some end goal, which is essential to learning (as you’ll soon find out). However, instead of success hinging on the accomplishment of that goal, I now look at each project as a means of practicing the principles of ultralearning.

Regardless of if a project succeeds or fails, at least I’m improving my learning ability. Increasing the efficiency in which I learn has a compounding effect that increases the number of things I’ll be able to learn over the course of my life.

This idea is liberating to me.

If this intrigues you, I HIGHLY recommend you read Ultralearning and then use this blog post as a reference guide.

Let’s get started.

“Ultralearning” Defined

Scott defines Ultralearning as “a strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.” The main priority is to deeply and effectively learn.

Scott mentions that “the biggest obstacle to Ultralearning is simply that most people don’t care enough about their own self-education to get started.”

You wouldn’t be reading this post if that were you.

Why Ultralearning Matters

So why should you learn the ultralearning framework and implement it in your life?

Imagine you can rapidly learn hard skills. What would that mean for your professional and personal endeavors?

Professional, maybe you want a new job or promotion, a career change, or perhaps you want to grow your business. Personally, maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to paint, speak a new language, or become better at socializing.

Ultralearning helps with the whole gamut.

Scott said it best, “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.”

How To Be An Ultralearner

Anyone can become an ultralearner.

Step 1) Find The Time

There are three ways to find time for ultralearning:

  1. New part-time project – If you’re trying to pick up a brand new skill and already have prior obligations, you’ll need to find the time in your day for ultralearning. For most, this means spending nights and weekends for learning.
  2. Learning sabbaticals – You can pursue ultralearning projects during gaps in work or school. These can be planned or unplanned. You just need to be aware of these and take full advantage fo them.
  3. Reimagine existing learning efforts – If you’re like me, you’re always learning something. Instead of learning how you’ve always learned, reimagine what learning could be like if you implement the ultralearning principles to all these learning endeavors.

Step 2) Pick A Topic

Pick something you want to learn. Ultralearning can be applied to pretty much anything.

An exciting takeaway I got from Scott was that learning certain skills can have a trickle-down effect. For example, if you pick public speaking as the skill you want to learn, you’ll also end up learning confidence, stage presence, storytelling, writing, interviewing, and sales.

Keep this in mind when selecting a topic.

Step 3) Implement The 9 Principles Of Ultralearning

Scott says that in his view, ultralearning “works best when you see it through a simple set of principles, rather than trying to copy and paste exact steps or protocols.”

Next, we’ll walk through the principles of ultralearning.

Ultralearning Principles (A Framework For Learning)

Here are the nine principles of ultralearning:

Principle 1: Metalearning – Research How You Are Going To Learn

Metalearning is “learning about learning.”

Here’s why it’s important:

“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. Metalearning forms the map, showing you how to get to your destination without getting lost.”

Without the map metalearning allows you to create, you might end up at the destination you were shooting for, but it’ll take you longer because of the inefficient route you ended up taking.

Think of metalearning as researching how you plan on learning a skill.

Scott recommends asking yourself three questions when you begin metalearning:

  • Why do you want to learn a particular skill
  • What knowledge do you need to acquire to be successful?
  • How do you plan on learning?

Why

Do you want to learn a particular skill because it will help you accomplish another goal, or are you learning the skill for the sake of learning the skill?

If it’s to help you attain something else, REALLY make sure that it actually will. For example, often people think an MBA will help them get their dream job. This is usually NOT true. Don’t waste your time doing something that isn’t going to help you get to where you want to go.

Talk to an expert who has already done what you want to accomplish to ensure you’re thinking about the problem correctly.

What

On a piece of paper, create three columns:

  1. Concepts – What ideas do you need to thoroughly understand for things to make sense?
  2. Facts – What facts do you just need to remember (e.g. formulas, definitions, vocabulary, etc.)?
  3. Procedures – What actions need to be performed that may not involve conscious thinking (e.g. riding a bike, pronunciation, etc.)?

Underline the concepts, facts, and procedures that will be the hardest to master. Also, be aware that you’ll want to avoid learning anything that doesn’t fit into your list. It’s probably unnecessary and will help you reach your learning goals faster.

How

First, figure out how most people learn a particular skill. Use the internet and ask an expert who already is proficient in the skill you want to learn.

Once you understand how most people learn it, modify the curriculum to best suit your learning goals and style.

Principle 2: Focus – Start, Sustain, Optimize

Being able to focus is clearly important when learning.

No matter where you are in terms of your ability to focus, practice focusing every single day, and you will get better.

There are three ways most people struggle with focus:

  1. Failing to start focusing
  2. Failing to sustain focus
  3. Failing to create the right type of focus

Failing To Start Focusing

We procrastinate because “there’s a craving that drives you to want to do something else, there’s an aversion to doing the task itself, or both.”

To overcome procrastination, do the following:

  1. Recognize you’re procrastinating
  2. Realize the feeling is just temporary and will go away
  3. Tell yourself you only need to sit down and do the thing you’re procrastinating on for 5 minutes. You’ll often do a lot more than just 5 minutes because you’ll get past the initial feeling.

You can also try the Pomodoro Technique: 25 minutes of work, followed by a 5-minute break.

If you don’t have any issues starting and can stay focused for more than 25 minutes at a time, it’s helpful to carve out hourly blocks to work on things throughout your day.

Personally, I make a to-do list for the following day. I use my calendar and PM tool to do this. The list is laid out by hourly blocks, so I know what I should be doing during each hour of each day. When a new block of time starts, I set a timer on my Apple Watch. When the timer goes off, I move onto my next block.

Failing To Sustain Focus

You want to avoid distractions so you can sustain focus. The three most common types of distractions are:

  1. Your Environment – Avoid distracting places, technology, etc. Turn off Slack and close your email. Throw on some noise-canceling headphones and make sure you won’t be bothered.
  2. Your Task – Certain tasks like reading are harder to focus on than watching a video. Always choose the medium that is easiest for you to concentrate on without sacrificing directness (principle 3) or a task that offers no feedback (Principle 6).
  3. Your Mind – Anxiety, depression, and other negative mind states make it harder to focus. The keyword there is “harder.” If you have to concentrate in a poor mental state, “remember that the long-term strengthening of your ability to persist on this task will be useful, so the time is not wasted even if you don’t accomplish much in this particular learning session.”

Failing To Create The Right Kind of Focus

More complex tasks tend to benefit from a more relaxed kind of focus while the opposite is true for easier, more mindless tasks.

For more mindless tasks, crank up the dubstep. For intense, complex tasks, throw on that classical music or keep it silent.

Principal 3: Directness – Learn By Doing

Principle 3 is simple: As often as possible, learn by doing.

Most people struggle with directness because “directly learning the thing we want feels too uncomfortable, boring, or frustrating, so we settle for some book, lecture, or app, hoping it will eventually make us better at the real thing.”

This is, unfortunately, not true.

I struggled with this for several years after graduating from college because school does NOT emphasize this type of learning. If they did, all you’d do to learn would be to study practice test questions, since the goal is to pass a test, not necessarily learn a subject.

Learn just what you need through books or other learning material to get started. Then begin a project that forces you to learn directly. Turn back to the books when you get stuck and only read what you need to continue working on the project.

Principal 4: Drill – Intelligent Repetition

In chemistry, the rate-determining step “occurs when a reaction takes place over multiple steps, with the products of one reaction becoming reagents for another. The rate-determining step is the slowest part of this chain reaction, forming a bottleneck that ultimately defines the amount of time needed for the entire reaction to occur.”

Learning is similar.

Certains aspects of a topic are going to be the bottleneck to learning. These control the speed at which you can become proficient in the subject.

Make sure you identify all the components of a skill (remember concepts, facts, and procedures). Then use the Direct-Then-Drill-Approach.

The approach is as follows:

  1. First, practice the skill directly
  2. Second, determine what components make up the skill and try to identify the rate-determining steps. Drill these until you get better.
  3. Lastly, go back to direct practice and implement what you just drilled.

Drilling Techniques

Here are some drilling techniques recommended by Scott:

  • Time Slicing – isolate something that’s difficult and only practice that (e.g. practice just the guitar solo, not the entire song)
  • Cognitive Components – find different ways of practicing one component of a skill, when in practice, other components would be applied (e.g. if learning public speaking, practice your delivery, not body language, hand gestures, or anything else).
  • The Copycat – Copy parts of a skill you don’t want to practice, so you can focus on the single component you do want to practice (e.g. If you want to become better at crafting arguments in your writing, don’t come up with your own arguments. Copy the arguments from someone else and then practice organizing those arguments).
  • The Magnifying Glass Method – spend extra time practicing one component of the skill even if you can’t just drill that single component (e.g. if you’re doing an analysis and struggle with querying data with SQL, spend time optimizing your query, instead of moving on immediately once it runs correctly).
  • Prerequisite Chaining – start doing a skill you don’t have the prerequisites for. When you end up doing poorly, go back a step and learn the fundamentals of a single component of the skill. For example, if you’re learning public speaking, record yourself giving a speech. When you watch it over, you may realize your delivery is terrible. Learn the fundamentals of delivery, then give another speech. Rinse and repeat.

Principal 5: Retrieval – Use Your Brain, Not Your Study Material

Practicing the retrieval of information is the best way to study and learn something.

Don’t reread the material. Instead, try to remember what you’ve already read. A big mistake people make is waiting too long to begin testing themselves. They want to “feel ready.” You should always try to test yourself well before you feel ready.

Scott says, “The reality of the forward-testing effect implies that practicing retrieval might not only benefit from starting earlier than one is “ready,” but even before you have the possibility of answering correctly.”

Nobody has the time to learn everything. Therefore you need to choose what to master and what you are comfortable with just being able to look up when you need it. Directness allows you to avoid this because you will only learn what is necessary to directly apply the skill that you’re learning.

How To Practice Retrieval

  • Flashcards – spaced-repetition flashcard systems are best. Flashcards are useful for fact-based learning, but not for procedural or concept-based knowledge.
  • Free Recall – After reading/learning something, try to write down everything that you can remember on a blank piece of paper. Try to write down the main points and concepts.
  • The Question-Book Method – When reading something, instead of taking notes as facts, take notes as questions. For example, instead of writing, “SEO is search engine optimization,” write “What is SEO?” Restrict yourself to one question per one section of text, so you don’t overdo it.
  • Self-Generated Challenges – Create challenges for yourself that make you directly apply what you just learned. For programmers, if you learned a new algorithm, create a problem for yourself where you need to use that algorithm.
  • Closed-Book Learning – After you read about something, close the book and conduct concept mapping without opening the book as reference material.

Principal 6: Feedback – Finding The Sweetspot

Feedback is to learning as salt is to pepper.

However, the type of feedback you receive is critical. Overly positive or overly negative feedback isn’t helpful and can hinder learning.

Feedback is uncomfortable, but fear of feedback is even more uncomfortable. Usually, the best option is to immerse yourself in an environment where the feedback is very negative initially so that you can squash your fears early on, and they don’t impact your future learning.

3 Types of Feedback

  1. Outcome Feedback – You get feedback based on some outcome. It tells you how you’re doing overall, but doesn’t provide specifics into what’s getting better/worse (e.g. a piece of code either runs or errors out, but if it runs, it doesn’t necessarily mean it does what you want it to do). This is the weakest form of feedback.
  2. Informational Feedback – This feedback tells you what you’re doing wrong, but not how to fix it. For example, if you run a piece of code and get an error saying something is wrong on line 115.
  3. Corrective Feedback – Feedback that shows you what you’re doing wrong AND how to fix it (e.g. a coach points out what you’re doing wrong).

Get feedback fast, but not so fast that it turns retrieval into passive review.

How To Improve Feedback

  • Noise Cancellation – Remove certain factors when assessing how well you’re doing. Scott gives an example of blog writing in the book. Instead of using traffic as a KPI, use the time on page. Time on-page is a more accurate means of assessing how much people like you’re writing rather than the number of hits your page got.
  • Hit The Difficulty Sweet Spot – Avoid always feeling good or bad about your performance. Try to stay in the middle, by adjusting the type of feedback you’re getting.
  • Metafeedback – It’s not about performance, it’s about evaluating the overall success of the strategy you’re using to learn. Are you improving?
  • High-Intensity, Rapid Feedback – Get a lot more feedback a lot more often. This can make you want to learn more aggressively because you know you’re going to be getting feedback often.

Principle 7: Retention – Effectively Remember What You’ve Learned

Retention is a means of implementing strategies to prevent you from forgetting information.

The forgetting curve shows that humans forget things quickly after learning them and that there is an exponential decay in knowledge.

How To Retain & Remember More

  • Spacing – Don’t cram. It’s better to spend one hour a day for ten days learning something than it is to spend ten hours one day. However, if the amount of time between study intervals gets too long, you start losing that benefit. When you learn something new, revisit what you learned every so often. As time goes on, you can increase the time between when you review what you learned. Use a spaced-repetition software (SRS) like Anki for this.
  • Proceduralization – Procedural skills like riding a bike are easier to remember than things like the Pythagorean Theorem. How do you make all learning procedural? Instead of accumulating a large volume of knowledge about a skill, focus on learning the core tenants of that skill. Use those core tenants frequently, so they are stored in memory longer (i.e. figure out what’s important and drill that more often).
  • Overlearning – Overlearning is doing additional practice on something after you have learned it. You’ll increase the time you remember it. Focus on overlearning what’s common in the skill you’re learning (e.g. for improving typing speed, learn the words that get typed the most). First, practice that core set of principles of the skill you’re learning. Once you do that, go one level above the skill and practice something new that still uses that prior skill (e.g. for typing, practice typing just the most common words. Then graduate to typing sentences that include those common words).
  • MnemonicsMnemonics is the study and development of systems for improving and assisting the memory. Scott believes there’s a slim set of skills you can learn where mnemonics are useful, like language learning. If you want to learn more about mnemonics, Scott recommends reading Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.

Principal 8: Intuition – Making Sure You Actually Understand

Experts have a deep intuition for problems because of how well they understand the core principles of their field. This intuition makes it much easier and faster to solve problems.

How To Build A Deep Intuition

  • Rule 1: Don’t give up on hard problems easy. Give yourself a “struggle timer” to struggle on a problem for a certain amount of time.
  • Rule 2: Prove things to understand them. Don’t just accept things as true; try to prove them, so you know why they are true.
  • Rule 3: Always start with a concrete example. Humans don’t learn things well in the abstract. You need specific examples to learn things well. If you can’t come up with an example, that’s a good hint that you don’t actually understand the topic in question.
  • Rule 4: Don’t fool yourself. The Dunning-Kruger effect states that humans are bad at realizing when they have an inadequate understanding of a subject because “you don’t know what you don’t know.” To avoid this, ask a ton of questions. Many people lack the confidence to ask “dumb” questions. Don’t let this be you. By asking “dumb” questions, you’ll notice the “not-so-obvious implications of the things” you study.

The Feynman Technique

If you don’t know who Richard Feynman is, I highly recommend reading Surely You Must Be Joking Mr. Feynman. It’s one of my favorite books of all time and is about the life of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.

Scott came up with what he calls the Feynman Technique for building intuition (something Feynman was amazing at):

  1. At the top of a piece of paper, write the concept or problem you want to understand better.
  2. In the space below, explain the idea as if you had to teach it to someone. If it’s a concept, ask yourself,” how would I explain this to someone who’s never heard of this before?” If it’s a problem, explain how to solve it AND why the solution makes sense to you. This is critical for actually understanding something.
  3. When you get stuck, meaning your understanding fails to provide a clear answer, go back to your book, notes, teacher, or reference material to find the answer.

Principal 9: Experimentation – The Scientific Method

As you become proficient at something, there are fewer resources and people who can teach you things you don’t already know. Therefore, how do you become a master at the skill you seek mastery in?

The answer: experimentation.

The process of experimentation looks like this:

  1. Hypothesis
  2. Experiment
  3. Results
  4. Repeat

When it comes to learning, there are three types of experimentation you can test out:

  1. Experiment with new learning resources (e.g. books, courses, mentors, etc.)
  2. Experiment with technique (you need to be aware of all the techniques that exist)
  3. Experiment with style (you need to be aware of all the styles that exist)

Something vital to recognize is that there are two types of mindsets: fixed and growth. Fixed means you believe your traits are fixed. Growth means you believe you can improve your traits.

These both become self-fulfilling prophecies. You can grow, so make sure you believe it.

How To Experiment

  • Tactic 1: Copy Then Create – Copy work done by someone else. This gives you insight into all the details you would have otherwise overlooked. When you go to create something using a similar style/technique, you’ll now be aware of all the little things that went into that person’s creation and better be able to emulate it.
  • Tactic 2: Compare Methods Side-By-Side – If you are unsure of what method/style/technique to use, use two different ones and then compare the difference. Which worked better for you?
  • Tactic 3: Introduce New Constraints – By adding constraints to projects you work on, it forces you to rethink how you approach problems. It also encourages new and creative solutions.
  • Tactic 4: Find Your Superpower in the Hybrid of Unrelated Skills – Combining skills that don’t necessarily overlap can skyrocket you into the top 1%. Doing this gives you a distinct advantage in a niche area.
  • Tactic 5: Explore the Extremes – A great way of exploring a skill/field is by going to the extreme because it encourages exploration. If you don’t go extreme, you stay in a safe spot where there’s less room for growth.

My Ultralearning Projects For 2020

I have two main goals for 2020:
  1. Scale my agency to 7 figures
  2. Learn Python
I’m planning on using the Ultralearning framework to accomplish both of these goals. Here’s how Scott recommends planning ultralearning projects:

Step 1: Do Your Research

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are you going to learn, and in what scope?
  • What resources are you going to use?
  • What have others done to learn the skill successfully?
  • What are you going to do to encourage directness in your learning?
  • How are you going to be applying what you learn?
  • Have back up materials and drills to use if you realize what you’re doing in ineffective.

Step 2: Schedule Your Time

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much time are you going to commit?
  • When are you going to learn?
  • How long is your project going to be?

Put all this information into your calendar to make it concrete. Test your schedule for a week to ensure you can stick to it.

Step 3: Execute Your Plan

As you execute, make sure you are following the Ultralearning principles Scott lays out.

Here are a bunch of questions he recommends asking yourself for each Ultralearning principles.

In my opinion, these questions are the most valuable piece of the book because they’re phrased in a way to help you work through the Ultralearning process as efficiently as possible.

Metalearning

  • Have I researched what the typical ways of learning the subject or skill are?
  • Have I interviewed successful learners to see what resources and advice they can recommend?
  • Have I spent 10% of the total time on preparing my project?

Focus

  • Am I focused when I spend time learning, or am I multitasking and distracted?
  • Am I skipping learning sessions or procrastinating?
  • When I start a session, how long does it take before I’m in a good flow?
  • How long can I sustain that focus before my mind starts to wander?
  • How sharp is my attention?
  • Should it be more concentrated for intensity or more diffuse for creativity?

Directness

  • Am I learning the skill in the way I’ll eventually be using it? If not, what mental processes are missing from my practice that exist in the real environment?
  • How can I practice transferring the knowledge I learn from my book/class/video to real life?

Drill

  • Am I spending time focusing on the weakest points of my performance?
  • What is the rate-limiting-step that is holding me back?
  • Does it feel as though my learning is slowing down and that there are too many components of the skill to master? If so, how can I split apart a complicated skill to work on smaller, more manageable parts of it?

Retrieval

  • Am I spending more of my time reading and reviewing, or am I solving problems and recalling things from memory without looking at my notes?
  • Do I have some way of testing myself, or do I just assume I’ll remember?
  • Can I successfully explain what I learned yesterday, last week, a year ago? How do I know if I can?

Feedback

  • Am I getting honest feedback about my performance early on, or am I trying to dodge the punches and avoid criticism?
  • Do I know what I’m learning well, and what I’m not? Am I using feedback correctly, or am I overreacting to noisy data?

Retention

  • Do I have a plan in place to remember what I’m learning long term?
  • Am I spacing my exposure to information so it will stick longer?
  • Am I turning factual knowledge into procedures that I’ll retain? Am I overlearning the most critical aspects of the skill?

Intuition

  • Do I deeply understand the things I’m learning, or am I just memorizing?
  • Could I teach the ideas and procedures I’m studying to someone else?
  • Is it clear to me why what I’m learning is true, or does it all seem arbitrary and unrelated?

Experimentation

  • Am I getting stuck with my current resources and techniques?
  • Do I need to branch out and try new approaches to reach my goal?
  • How can I go beyond mastering the basics and create a unique style to solve problems creatively and do things others haven’t explored before?

Final Thoughts

Ultralearning seems to be a superpower once you become proficient.

It’s a skill I plan on putting a lot of effort into developing. I’m going to use this blog as a medium for documenting many of these ultralearning pursuits.

If you liked this book summary and found it useful, give it a share!

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