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

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

by Scott H. Young

In today’s fast-paced world, we’re needing to constantly upgrade our skills and knowledge just to keep up. If you want to truly stand out from the rest, you need to become an ultralearner, someone who can rapidly process and retain new knowledge. In Ultralearning, Scott H. Young offers powerful strategies and training methods to help you achieve unlock that deeper potential of your mind.

Scott H. Young has been a prolific writer on his blog since 2006 where he writes about learning, productivity, career, habits and living well. He is know for documenting learning challenges such as the learning a 4-year MIT computer science degree in one year, learning four langauges in one year and learning to draw portraits in 30 days.

Summary Notes

Can You Get An MIT Education Without Going To MIT?

“Nearly every other profession is rapidly accelerating the knowledge and skills required, and many are struggling to keep up.”

Some people navigate life with an aggressive desire not just to learn, but to self-educate and produce incredible results. These are the sort of people who can become fluent in an entirely new language in three months, or pick up a new hobby and excel at it - enough to make millions of dollars. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Yet, these are examples of real-life people, people who are known as “ultralearners”. 

These people are relentless in their pursuit of knowledge, which is a key factor in their success. For ultralearners, their desire to learn is what drives their motivation to self-educate. They seek out creative and unorthodox methods of learning, which are often much more effective than conventional routes.

Innovative, unique approaches produce powerful results. By using the same techniques ultralearners do, you can simplify and enhance your learning processes so you can achieve the targets you set for yourself.

Actions to take

Why Ultralearning Matters

“With ultralearning, deeply and effectively learning things is always the main priority.”

The definition of ultralearning is: a strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense. As you practice your skill to perfection, you will find yourself slipping into a state of pleasurable flow where you are entirely focused on what you’re doing. So focused that you don’t even realize time is passing by!

You already spend plenty of time working to earn a living - ultralearning is a relatively small investment compared to that. As you rapidly learn skills, you’ll find it easier to take on new challenges, change careers, accelerate your progress in your field, etc. Similarly, applying ultralearning to aspects of your personal life will enable you to master skills that will bring you satisfaction and self-confidence.

Resources to learn are all around you, but it’s up to you to recognize them. Whether it’s an online course or shadowing a professional, there’s always effective and creative ways to learn the skills you desire. Remember, what matters the most is your intensity, initiative and commitment to ultralearning.

Actions to take

Principle 1: Metalearning - First Draw a Map

Metalearning means learning about learning. It’s the first step of ultralearning, and it enables you to see how a subject works, understand what kind of skills and information must be mastered and identify the methods that are available to do so.

Metalearning prepares you for ultralearning - and thereby saves the amount of time and effort you spend mastering your chosen skill. You should invest approximately 10% of your total expected learning time into researching your skill thoroughly (i.e., metalearning) beforehand - of course, this would decrease as your project scales up. 

Keep in mind that you shouldn’t stop metalearning once you start learning your skill! You should continue to do research as you learn more. Many obstacles will not be clear from the start, so it’s important to reassess your strategy regularly. 

Over time, you will get better and better at metalearning. With each project you tackle, you will learn and develop new tools to tackle the next one that comes your way. You’ll get more confident and eventually take on even your most ambitious goals. 

Actions to take

Principle 2: Focus - Sharpen Your Knife

“Don’t feel bad if you have to ever back up a stage; you cannot control your aversions or tendency to distraction, but with practice you can lessen their impact.”

Ultralearning requires the ability to focus deeply on the task at hand. However, this is easier said than done! There are a few obstacles commonly encountered when trying to focus - two of which are procrastination and getting distracted. Ultralearners are able to handle these problems appropriately and with a variety of different techniques, enabling them to focus intensely on their goal.

Of course, it’s not just enough to focus if you aren’t focusing on the right thing - which is the third obstacle. For example, if you’re trying to improve your skill at throwing darts, you would need to intensely concentrate on your target. However, if you’re trying to improve your math abilities, a more relaxed focus would be better, so that you can think more about how to solve the problems in front of you. 

Interestingly, if you’re working on a creative task such as a painting and you get stuck, having no focus may even benefit you! This is because your mind is now open to new ideas and may make connections it couldn’t make before. It’s therefore important to be able to properly determine what level and type of focus is required for your task.

Actions to take

Principle 3: Directness - Go Straight Ahead

“Whenever you learn something new, it’s a good habit to ask yourself where and how the knowledge will manifest itself.”

Directness refers to the idea of learning being tied closely to the situation or context you want to use it in. After all, knowledge is useless if you don’t know how and when to apply it. Many of us are actually building the wrong portfolio of skills. For example, if you want to learn a language but go about it with an app rather than actually conversing with people to practice, your progress will be much slower as you aren’t learning how to use the language in a real-life context.

One goal of learning is to develop transferable skills. This refers to the ability to adapt a skill to a new situation. For example, if you know how to ice skate, it would be fairly simple to transfer that skill over to rollerblading. However, it is not always possible to transfer skills, either because the skill itself cannot be transferred, or because you did not receive the proper education to know how to do so. Direct learning prevents this problem from even having a chance to occur by ensuring you learn your chosen skill in the same context you plan to use it in.

Actions to take

Principle 4: Drill - Attack Your Weakest Point

“Carefully designed drills elicit creativity and imagination as you strive to solve a more complex learning challenge by breaking it into specific parts.”

Whenever learning something new, there will always be one key aspect that is holding you back from mastering it. This is known as the rate-determining step, and as the name implies, it determines how long it will take you to fully learn the subject or skill. For example, when learning a new language, the rate-determining step is vocabulary. If you only know a few words, you won’t be able to talk much but the more words you know, the more fluent you will become. 

When you isolate your rate-determining step and focus on perfecting it, you’ll make much more progress at learning your skill. Plus, you will begin to understand each and every component of your chosen skill which will also improve your overall performance.

This process functions as an ongoing cycle where you isolate and perfect one aspect of the skill, reintegrate it and practice the skill as a whole, then identify what aspect of the skill you are weakest at now, and so on until you have achieved mastery of the skill.

Actions to take

Principle 5: Retrieval - Test To Learn

“Retrieval is not a sufficient tool to create genius, but it may be a necessary one.”

A good way to measure how much you have learned is to test how much you can remember without referring to any notes. This process is known as free recall, and when practised appropriately, is a highly effective way to learn something new. This sort of self-testing allows you to accurately evaluate what you do and do not know.

Self-testing has been well documented in science as one of the best ways to learn and master a new skill. In fact, evidence shows that regularly testing your ability to recall previously studied information can make it easier to learn future material. The complete mechanisms behind this phenomenon have not been fully understood yet, but it is clear that self-testing is a powerful tool and key aspect of ultralearning.

What self-testing does is essentially train your mind to be able to recall relevant information quickly and efficiently. It ensures you fully understand the subject you’re learning, and shows you the gaps in your knowledge.

Actions to take

Principle 6: Feedback - Don’t Dodge The Punches

“Instead of going to the source, taking feedback directly, and using that information to learn quickly, people often choose to dodge the punches and avoid a potentially huge source of learning.”

Another thing ultralearners all have in common is they all seek feedback on their work. What separates their approach from more conventional approaches is the immediacy, accuracy and intensity of feedback that they seek. Ultralearners actively look for - and find - opportunities to showcase their work and receive feedback on it. Take the field of medicine for example, doctors learn rapidly and efficiently from the feedback they receive from patients.

Of course, the type of feedback being given is very important too. It should provide you with useful information to help you learn, such as telling you where you went wrong or giving specific advice on how to improve. On the other hand, feedback that attacks your ego or is directed towards you as an individual (i.e., “you’re so lazy!”) is likely to backfire. This sort of feedback can be filtered out, as it does not help you learn anything.

Actions to take

Principle 7: Retention - Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket

“Memory is essential to learning things well.”

No matter what field you’re in, you need to have a good memory to succeed. Accountants need to memorize rules, regulations and ratios, doctors need to memorize countless factoids about the human body, lawyers need to remember precedents and statutes. However, it can be hard to remember everything you need to, especially when you go a few months or years without needing to recall it.

There are three broad ways in which we forget information. The first is that memories simply decay with time - after all, we do remember recent events much more clearly. The second is that old memories can get replaced with new ones. This is thought to occur when two memories are similar, and one overwrites the other. 

The third theory about how we forget information argues that we don’t actually forget it, we just can’t access it. This means that if we can identify the cue associated with this memory, we may be able to recall it. A simple example is how specific smells can remind you of a childhood memory. However, it’s important to remember that when memories are triggered by cues in this manner, they may be modified, embellished or manipulated in some way and can’t be taken as fact.

Actions to take

Principle 8: Intuition - Dig Deep Before Digging Up

“Intuition sounds magical, but the reality may be more banal - the product of a large volume of organized experience dealing with the problem.”

To truly solve a problem, you have to dig deep and understand its underlying principles. This is something that only comes with experience in problem-solving. The more experience you get, the more familiar you will be with the different types of problems you encounter. This experience, coupled with the knowledge of how to use it to guide decisions, is what is commonly referred to as “intuition”. 

However, simply spending a lot of time studying something isn’t enough to build intuition. Flexibility is important - you need to be able to adapt what you’ve learned from books to real-life situations. The key thing here is taking the time to truly understand the relevant concept, problem or situation. When you focus on deeply processing an idea, you start to develop intuition.

Actions to take

Principle 9: Experimentation - Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone

“Experimentation is the key to mastery.”

What sets ultralearners apart from the rest is their motivation to experiment and try out unorthodox strategies. After all, what current methods can achieve is well documented. Innovative and unique tactics are essential to achieving anything outstanding. Plus, experimenting with different strategies and techniques has the added benefit of helping you realize where your natural talents lie. 

Having a mindset of experimentation will encourage you to venture out of your comfort zone and try more radical and creative things. Although it can seem daunting at first, you’ll soon realize that it will help you better understand your situation and capabilities.

Actions to take

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