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Synopsis

Ultralearning is a strategy for aggressive, self-directed learning.

Self-directed means that you can take back control rather than waiting to pay for expensive tuition and tutors. Aggressive means that, instead of spending years at something without getting great, your limited time and effort are always directed towards what works.

About Scott H. Young

Scott Young is a writer and business owner. In 2012, he ran his own self-directed education project, where in twelve months, he was able to learn how to code. Impressively, he was then able to pass final exams that MIT computer science graduates must pass at the end of their four-year degree programs. Scott Young used open-source computer science lectures available online along with his own self-organized learning activities and exercises to achieve this. His TEDx talk about his learning approach has been viewed more than half a million times. To further refine his learning methodology, Scott Young then learned four languages in twelve months. Scott Young is a graduate of the University of Manitoba and Montpellier Business School.

“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. If you approach ultralearning in that spirit, you should take these principles as flexible guidelines, not as rigid rules. Learning well isn’t merely about following a set of prescriptions.”

– Scott Young

Why Ultralearning Matters

Ultralearners are people who can learn and acquire new skills in a short time frame. These people have to be aggressive and strategic with their learning approaches. An example of this is Eric Barone. Eric was a theater usher who decided to create his own computer game. He was a recent IT graduate who was having to compete with huge companies with massive budgets. However, over five years, Barone refined his mechanics by adopting an aggressive trial and improvement approach. After these five years of adopting an aggressive approach, Barone released Stardew Valley. The game sold over three million copies in its year of release, 2016. This monumental sale rate placed him on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list. Hence, ultralearning can help you stay competitive within the professional world. 

Principle One – Metalearning

Metalearning should always be the start of your ultralearning journey. Metalearning is the process of learning how to learn effectively. To start implementing metalearning, you must first establish how information is structured in your chosen field. In doing so, you avoid just absorbing random information.

Metalearning requires you to look at the big picture and develop an optimal learning strategy. Scott Young offers three approaches you can adopt to help you identify your optimal learning strategy:

Create a Metalearning Map

The first action Young recommends is creating a metalearning map. These maps should break your topic down into three categories: concepts, facts, and procedures. Concepts relate to what you need to understand. Facts relate to what needs to be memorized. Finally, procedures relate to what needs to be done. You must appreciate that not all skills will require all three procedures. For example, Young highlights that learning a basketball shot will require you to almost entirely focus on the procedure. Once you have considered each of the categories, you should focus on the most relevant category.

Use the Map to Identify Challenges

After establishing your metalearning map, you must identify which aspects of learning might prove challenging. After noting these challenges, you should brainstorm techniques to overcome these challenges. These techniques will often require you to engage with a specialist activity, like spaced repetition, if you have to remember lots of information.

Establishing How You Are Going to Learn

The best way to establish how you will learn is by researching others who have already acquired a similar skill. Their approach can be used as a benchmark. Then, you can replicate their methods and techniques with your own unique twist. 

Principle Two – Focus: Sharpen Your Knife

Sharpening your knife is Young’s analogy for refining your focus. One of the most effective modern approaches to sharpen your knife is removing electronic temptations. For example, switch off your email notification and stop binge-watching Netflix.

The first challenge to refining your focus will always be getting focused in the first place. The author suggests tricking your brain into thinking you are focused. Set a timer and promise yourself that you can stop working when the timer goes off. You may find that you have built the momentum to continue working by the end of these three minutes. The Pomodoro technique is potentially the most effective way of using timers like this. With this technique, you need to set a timer for 20 minutes. Then, after these 20 minutes, you can take a five-minute break. After this break, you set another timer for 20 minutes and repeat.

After using these techniques to develop focus, you must learn how to sustain your focus. The issue with building momentum while working is you may fall into autopilot. Autopilot tricks you into thinking you are productive, but in reality, you have lost your focus. The best way to tackle autopilot is to use interleaving. Interleaving is the act of breaking a project into several short and regularly-spaced sessions.

Finally, monitor your attention and arousal levels and decide on which task to tackle based on these levels. For example, if you feel intense with a narrow focus, you should choose a repetitive task. Conversely, if you are relaxed with a wide-ranging focus, you should choose a creative task.

Principle Three – Directness: Go Straight Ahead

Formal education provides us with the knowledge related to an indirect path between your learning context and the target environment. For example, we learn French in a classroom rather than asking a French person for directions. Hence, it is unsurprising that we struggle to apply our French schooling in the real world. Therefore, Scott Young recommends attempting to make the path between your learning experience and application experience as direct as possible.

To hone your directness, you need to start learning things by doing. Young also calls this approach project-based learning. Situating your learning directly in your target environment means you skip the challenge of transferring your skills. Arguably the most effective way of adopting project-based learning is immersive learning. For example, a French student spending a year working in France. The author admits that some skills are unsafe to immersively learn, like flying a plane. However, you can engage with a similar environment to an immersive environment through simulations.

Principle Four: Drill Attack Your Weakest Point

Elite athletes, piano prodigies, and successful ultralearners all perfect their techniques to maintain their competitive edge. Start practicing a skill by adopting what Young calls the direct-then-drill approach. Start with a direct approach to your skill, so you can identify the areas you need to hone. Then, drill the skills you need to hone and return to direct practice until you notice more skills that need drilling.

To optimize your drilling, apply yourself to a rate-determining step. These steps are the part of the process that precipitates a chain reaction. Hence, in ultralearning, this is the step that unlocks the next level of knowledge. Identify these steps and then adopt one of the following approaches. Firstly, you can time-slice by isolating one step and repeating it until perfection. However, you can only adopt this approach if you can easily isolate a step from the entire process. If you cannot, you can always separate a skill into cognitive components and time-slice them. Alternatively, you can utilize the copycat method. Choose an idol who excels in the area you want to improve and emulate their approaches.

Principle Five – Retrieval: Test to Learn

“By taking notes as questions instead of answers, you generate the material to practice retrieval on later.”

– Scott Young

Testing yourself is often an effective way of improving your ability to retrieve a skill. Young offers two methods one can use to improve retrieval rates. Firstly, you can review your learning materials. Specifically, go back over the materials you used when you first studied this topic. The alternative of trying to recall facts and concepts from memory is significantly more effective. Young cites a 2011 study from Purdue University that found recall is far more effective for long-term learning retention. Despite this, most learners fall back on reviewing old material.

The issue with reviewing is also the same reason it is such a popular technique. When we review content, we often understand and recognize the content. Therefore, we assume we have learned that concept. However, this is a passive approach to learning and is a faulty judgment of learning. Although recall is often more difficult, this struggle in the short-term actually helps you remember in the long-term. Retrieval offers a desirable level of difficulty. 

The following are retrieval approaches you can use to improve your learning:

  1. Testing yourself or challenging yourself to write down everything you can remember. 
  2. Avoid making notes while you are reading. Instead, pose questions that will prompt you to retrieve the information.
  3. Set yourself a task that will test everything you have learned.

Principle Six – Feedback: Don’t Dodge

Even if you believe you are excelling in a field, you still need to accept feedback to continue progressing and improving. Almost all feedback is useful, but some feedback is more useful than others. Firstly, Young considers outcome feedback. This is the most basic form of feedback and involves determining whether you reached your desired outcome. This type of feedback can be encouraging but often lack enough information to make meaningful changes. 

The next type of feedback is informational feedback. Informational feedback involves highlighting problem areas and isolating mistakes based on a moment when you received the feedback. For example, when an audience member walks out of your speech.

The final and most effective form of feedback is corrective feedback. This type of feedback tells you precisely what you are doing wrong and how you can rectify it moving forward. When obtaining feedback, you should accept all feedback. However, you should always prioritize corrective feedback, then informational feedback, and finally, outcome feedback.

Principle Seven – Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket

Young offers a remarkable example of how impactful retention can be. In 2015, Nigel Richards won the World French Scrabble Championships. However, the remarkable thing is he did not speak French. Despite there being 386,000 French words approved by Scrabble, Richards was able to win by committing these words to memory. This is a perfect example of ultralearning.

The reality is that to become highly effective, you will need to commit important information to memory. However, do not commit things to memory in one burst. Instead, avoid cramming and space out your memorization sessions so you can remember the information long-term. Hence, make time a few days per week to memorize the information. 

Spaced repetition is potentially the most effective technique to learn information. Test your knowledge of discrete chunks of information in a randomized way. Then, the topics you easily retain, you should push further back in your revision schedule. On the flip side, the topics you are struggling with should be revised sooner. Attempting to retain information while it is difficult will create stronger long-term memories. 

Principle Eight – Intuition: Dig Deep Before

Having a deep understanding of a topic enables you to develop intuitions filled with connections and patterns. If you can accelerate your knowledge of a topic, then you can become extremely impactful through your intuition. Young provides several ways in which you can speed up your acquisition of the knowledge required to intuit:

  • Asking stupid questions will allow you to build the strong foundation required to develop intuition.
  • Push yourself into challenging learning experiences that can lead to a deeper grasp of the subject. Therefore, never run away from challenges or take shortcuts. Always choose the longer solution to a problem. 
  • Do not give up when things become difficult. Instead, implement a struggle timer whereby you tell yourself that you have to attempt to overcome the challenge for a chosen period.
  • Finally, try to develop your understanding of your topic. You should also develop a level of understanding that allows you to question the common concepts and theories.

Principle Nine – Experimentation: Explore Outside

“One rule I’ve found helpful for this is to restrict myself to one question per section of a text, thus forcing myself to acknowledge and rephrase the main point rather than zoom in on a detail that will be largely irrelevant later.”

– Scott Young

Young uses Vincent Van Gogh as an example for this final principle. Van Gogh was an art school dropout who was consistently described as an unremarkable painter. Today, he is considered one of the greatest artists to ever live. He achieved this success through consistent experimentation. His distinctive art style changed considerably from his early years. He did not hit on his distinctive aesthetic immediately. Hence, Young describes experimentation as ultralearning’s secret ingredient.

The first approach you can adopt to experiment is copying and then creating. Emulate someone else’s work and then use this as a way to test your own ideas. One way to improve the efficiency of your experimentation is to set limits on your creativity. Working within strict limits can force you to try a process you never usually would. 

Comment below and let others know what you have learned or if you have any other thoughts.

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