Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career by Scott Young

(New York: Harper, 2019), 275

Scott Young gives a tour of ultralearning projects (including his own) to outline nine principles of how to best pursue self-directed and intense ultralearing projects:

  1. Meta learning: first draw a map of how to learn the skill you are interested in
  2. Focus: cultivate the ability to concentrate and schedule time for learning
  3. Directness: learn by doing the actual thing you want to be good at
  4. Drill: break it down into component parts and ruthlessly drill your weakest points
  5. Retrieval: test to learn even before you are confident and push yourself to recall information
  6. Feedback: use feedback to improve with a good filter and dose of humility
  7. Retention: understand what you forget and why
  8. Intuition: dig deep before building up and focus on truly understanding things
  9. Experimentation: use these principles as a starting point and develop mastery by experimenting yourself to move beyond them

Notes


Contents


Preface

by James Clear

  • James Clear used the ultralearning method to start his photography and writing
  • it’s impressive what a short focused few months or year of learning can accomplish!

Chapter 1: MIT Challenge

Summary: Overview of the Ultralearning philosophy with the examples of the MIT challenge and Roger Criag's Jeopardy win after writing spaced repetition software to study.

Chapter 2: Why Ultralearning Matters

Summary: The ability to acquire hard skills effectively and efficiently is immensely valuable and current trends will only cause this to increase.

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

  • Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over: "skill polarization" where the top performers do much better than the rest (27-28)
  • Education: technology makes it the easiest time in history to learn something new
  • The core of ultra leaning is intensity

Chapter 3: How to Become an Ultralearner

Summary: Young has studied ultralearners and distilled 9 common principles to guide ultralearning efforts.

  1. Meta learning: first draw a map of how to learn the skill you are interested in
  2. Focus: cultivate the ability to concentrate and schedule time for learning
  3. Directness: learn by doing the actual thing you want to be good at
  4. Drill: break it down into component parts and ruthlessly drill your weakest points
  5. Retrieval: test to learn even before you are confident and push yourself to recall information
  6. Feedback: use feedback to improve with a good filter and dose of humility
  7. Retention: understand what you forget and why
  8. Intuition: dig deep before building up and focus on truly understanding things
  9. Experimentation: use these principles as a starting point and develop mastery by experimenting yourself to move beyond them

Chapter 4: Metalearning: First Draw a Map

Summary: Plan your learning project ahead of time to maximize the probability of success in that instance as well as to build your understanding of how you best learn in general.

  • Answer the questions of why, what (concepts, procedures, facts), and how (benchmarking existing methods and then emphasize/exclude to modify to suit your needs) you plan to learn what you are interested in
  • Spend about 10% of your learning time on planning how to learn

Chapter 5: Focus

Summary: Cultivate (through small incremental wins) the ability to concentrate and schedule time for your learning.

  • Anti-procrastination crutches: get over just the first few minutes, pomodoro timer
  • Sources of distraction: your environment, tasks and medium (avoid “reading hypnosis”), and your mind
  • Don’t worry about flow when learning

Chapter 6: Directness: Go Straight Ahead

Summary: Educational transfer is limited, so focus your learning efforts on doing what you actually want to build skill in (or doing the closest possible thing).

  • Don't beat around the bush: spend a lot of time doing the actual thing you want to get good at
  • “Transfer” (learning something in one context and being able to use it in another) is the dirty secret of education: it largely fails to occur

    • Corporate training also rarely changes behavior

  • Classical Education: Universal instruction in Latin and Greek (or programming) doesn’t generalize to other learning, at last not as well as we might think (95)

    • Thorndike and Woodworth (1901) attacked the idea that the brain is a muscle and exercising it generally makes it better at all tasks: the ability to transfer is much narrower than we assume

  • Young’s hypothesis: there is more opportunity for transfer in a real environment because real environments have more similarities than fake academic environments (so if you are going to do something other than the thing you want to actually do, at least do something real)
  • The cognitive features of the skill you want to master and the way you practice it should be substantially similar
  • Learning directly is hard, but gives you a competitive advantage if you pursue it (cf. 2017-01-01-So Good They Can’t Ignore You)
  • If you want to learn about something more abstract (example of military history), it’s helpful to set for yourself a deliverable like a paper (which I want to do on the topic of Feminism|Christian Feminism
  • Strategies to be direct including: project-based learning (create something), immersive learning (language), "flight sim method" (approximate as closely as possible), and “overkill method” (ensure your desired skill level is fully contained in the training set)
  • Direct practice also forces you to use the skills you actually need, rather than those that are related but not required (128 in chapter on retrieval)

Chapter 7: Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point

Summary: To get better at any skill, decompose it into components and focus attention on drilling your weakest components.

  • Example of Ben Franklin from his Autobiography about how to practice writing: deconstruct things he admired, wrote in different voices, etc
  • Bottlenecks of learning: determine your bottleneck and then target your learning at that
  • Drills focus direct practice on an isolated component
  • “Direct then drill approach”: do the skill, identify the things to improve, drill them those things, cycle back

Chapter 8: Retrieval: Test to Learn

Summary: Retrieval practice moves beyond direct practice to force our minds into action and build breadth of knowledge that is useful for problem solving.

  • Testing yourself is more effective for studying than reviewing material. Difficulty is part of what makes retrieving work.
  • Forward testing effect: testing actually helps you learn
  • Retrieval practice is needed to excel in this world of knowledge at our fingertips (129):

    • Direct practice alone can limit us since we are not exposed to knowledge that can help you but isn't required to solve a problem

    • Retrieval practice builds the breadth of conceptual knowledge that can serve as a map for looking up the more relevant thing when it can be useful for solving a problem

  • Reading: after reading something sit down and write everything you can remember about it
  • Question book method: write your notes on big ideas as questions that you can answer, focus on one main point of a section of text

Chapter 9: Feedback: Don't Dodge the Punches

Summary: Taking feedback requires humility and emotional maturity and can be an effective way to learn quickly.

  • Outcome feedback: aggregate feedback on outcomes
  • Informational feedback: tells you what you’re doing wrong but not how to fix it
  • Corrective feedback: requires mentor/coach to call out your mistakes
  • Faster feedback is generally better

Chapter 10: Retention: Don't Fill a Leaky Bucket

Summary: We are always forgetting what we learn (or read cf. 2021-06-01-How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read), so take action to retain the most important information.

  • Spacing: cramming doesn't work, spaced repetition is effective
  • Prodceduralization (making a skill automatic): more durable, so use for the core skills you want to retain, and it may be effective to proceduralize a few key skills rather than lighter learning on many skills
  • Over learning: go beyond the desired level of retention to make that easier to remember
  • Mnemonics: Rajveer Meena knows $\pi$ to 70,000 digits (!!)

Chapter 11: Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up

Summary: Deep intuition is the core to true understanding and only comes with lots of practice and hard work.

  • Richard Feynman
  • Rule 1 - Don't give up on hard problems easily: "struggle timer" to push yourself 10 more minutes beyond the point you want to give up
  • Ruls 2 - Prove things to understand them (esp. by Writing)
  • Rule 3 - Start with concrete example
  • Rule 4 - Don’t fool yourself: ask lots of questions, even if "dumb"
  • Feynman technique: on a piece of paper, explain the concept as you would when teaching it to someone

Chapter 12: Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone

Summary: These principles are a starting point, but all great learning experiments beyond them.

  • “As creativity becomes valuable, experimentation becomes essential”
  • Methods of experimentation: copy then create, compare methods side-by-side, introduce constraints to your work, merge unrelated skills (personal monopoly), explore the extremes

Source: audiobook perusing, also related to The Only Skill that Matters by Jonathan Levi

Bibliography

  • Average is Over by Tyler Cowen (27)
  • The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner (95)
  • Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin (107)
  • Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (174)
  • Raise a Genius! by László Polgár (242)

Created: 2021-09-09
Updated: <%+ tp.file.lastmodifieddate("YYYY-MM-DD") %>

Please drop me a note to share your thoughts or if you have a book to recommend: m.kudija@gmail.com