Book notes: Ultralearning by Scott Young

Ultralearning by Scott Young book summary review and key ideas.

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


Future-proof your career and maximize your competitive advantage by learning the skill necessary to stay relevant, reinvent yourself, and adapt to whatever the workplace throws your way in this essential guide that goes beyond the insights of popular works such as Extreme Productivity, Deep Work, Peak, and Make It Stick.

Faced with tumultuous economic times and rapid technological change, staying ahead in your career depends on continual learning – a lifelong mastery of new ideas, subjects, and skills. If you want to accomplish more and stand apart from everyone else, you need to become an ultralearner. 

Scott Young incorporates the latest research about the most effective learning methods and the stories of other ultralearners like himself – among them Ben Franklin, Judit Polgar, and Richard Feynman, as well as a host of others, such as little-known modern polymaths like Nigel Richards who won the World Championship of French Scrabble – without knowing French.

Young documents the methods he and others have used and shows that, far from being an obscure skill limited to aggressive autodidacts, ultralearning is a powerful tool anyone can use to improve their career, studies, and life. Ultralearning explores this fascinating subculture, shares the seven principles behind every successful ultralearning project, and offers insights into how you can organize and execute a plan to learn anything deeply and quickly, without teachers or budget-busting tuition costs.

Whether the goal is to be fluent in a language (or 10 languages), earn the equivalent of a college degree in a fraction of the time, or master multiple skills to build a product or business from the ground up, the principles in Ultralearning will guide you to success.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I don’t really know much about this book or this author. It seems pretty straightforward. I bet this book will give insights on how to learn quickly. Perhaps it’ll be similar to Deep Work by Cal Newport? I think I’ve also seen or read a blog post from this guy once about learning several languages in a few months, but I barely remember it.

Key notes:


Written by James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

  • Scott has a bias towards action. He is committed to putting the knowledge he learns to use

Reader’s note: This makes me want to ask myself, what skill do I want to learn and practice getting really good at?

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, while in practice there is”

Chapter 1: Can You Get an MIT Education Without Going to MIT?

  • His friend’s advice: always have a challenge

Chapter 2: Why Ultralearning Matters

  • Ultralearning: a strategy for acquiring skills that is both self-directed and intense
    • Ultralearning is a powerful tool and a small investment
    • Rapidly learning hard skills can have a greater impact than years of mediocre striving on the job
  • Your deepest moments of happiness don’t come from easy things. They come from realizing your potential and overcoming your own limiting beliefs about yourself
  • Medium-skilled technical work is being outsourced overseas or replaced with technology. Only high-skilled jobs and lower-skilled jobs are remaining due to developing technology
    • You need to move to the higher-skilled category where learning is constant, or you’ll be pushed into the lower skilled category
  • Ultralearning can fill in the gaps where higher education does not fill the need in the market and is also more flexible to the students lifestyle demands

Reader’s note: this reminds me a lot of the argument for learning things quickly and efficiently as referenced in the book Deep Work by Cal Newport 

  • The best ultralearners are those who blend the practical reasons for learning a skill with an inspiration that comes with something that excites them
    • Learning and growth also builds your confidence and brightens your perspective of what’s possible

Chapter 3: how to become an ultra learner 

  • What makes ultra learning interesting is also what makes it hard to boil down into step-by-step formulas
Principles of becoming an ultralearner:
  1. Metalearningfirst draw a map
  2. Focussharpen your knife. Cultivate the ability to concentrate
  3. Directnessgo straight ahead
    • Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at
  4. Drillattack your weakest point
    • Be ruthless in improving your weakest points
  5. Retrievaltest to learn
  6. Feedbackdon’t dodge the punches
  7. Retentiondon’t fill a leaky bucket. Understand what you forget and why
  8. Intuitiondig deep before building up
    • Develop through play and exploration of concept and skills. Understand how understanding works
  9. Experimentationexplore outside your comfort zone

Chapter 4: principle one – Metalearning: first draw a map

  • Metalearning means learning about learning, such as how knowledge is structured and acquired within the subject 
  • People who speak other languages can pick up new languages more quickly
    • Also people who study new languages are more familiar with language acquisition
  • Break down metalearning you do for a specific project into three questions:
    • Why
    • What
    • How
  • Do your research first. Determine if learning a topic is likely to have a the effect you want it to before you get started 
  • Two ways to answer “how” you’ll learn something:
    • Benchmarking – finding the common ways people learn a subject to design a default strategy as a starting point
    • Emphasize-exclude method – finding the areas most relevant to your learning goals and excluding those that aren’t from your curriculum
  • Rule of thumb: invest about 10% of your total expected learning time in research before you get started
  • The true benefits of metalearning are long-term

Chapter 5: principle two – focus: sharpen your knife

  • In the realm of great intellectual accomplishments, an ability to focus quickly and deeply is nearly ubiquitous
  • The struggles with focus that people have generally come in three broad varieties:
    • Starting
    • Sustaining
    • Optimizing the quality
  • Ultralearners are relentless in coming up with solutions to handle these 3 problems which form the basis of an ability to focus well and learn deeply
Problem 1: Failing to start focusing a.k.a. Procrastinating
  • Make a mental note when you are procrastinating, either recognizing the feeling some desire to not do a task or stronger urge to do something else
    • Building this awareness is the first step
  • Sometimes the worry about the unpleasantness of a task only lasts a few minutes before going away
  • One crutch is to get yourself to continue for only 5 minutes
    • After a while, you can utilize the Pomodoro Technique to further improve productivity
      • 1 pomodoro = 25 minute work sessions followed by a 3-5 minute break
      • After 4 pomodoros, take a 15-30 minute break
Problem 2: Failing to sustain focus a.k.a. Getting distracted
  • Flow is a state of mind where you are in the zone and stop being distracted by interrupting thoughts
    • Your mind becomes completely absorbed in the task at hand
    • While flow may be possible in ultralearning, we environment of deliberate practice is not conducive because the difficulty makes flow very difficult
      • Additionally, the self-consciousness that is absent in flow may need to be present in ultralearning and deliberate practice as you need to constantly adjust your approach
    • His advice: don’t worry about flow
  • Some research says breaking up studying into chunks of different subjects may help with focus
    • A proper balance is needed. 50-60 minutes is a good length of time for many learning tasks
    • For more concentrated schedules, you can use several-minute breaks every hour and split up the different areas in your subject
  • Ultimately, however, you need to find what works best for you
  • 3 sources that causes focus to break down:
    1. Your environment
      • Be aware, test your environment, and experiment
    2. Your task
      • Consider the different tools for learning
      • Consider slight modifications in learning that increase difficulty to make it cognitively harder to zone out
    3. Your mind – negative emotions, restlessness, daydreaming
      • A clear, calm mind is always best for focusing on all learning problems
      • Dealing with problems may need to be dealt with first
        • For things you cannot control, acknowledge and be aware of your negative feelings, then let it pass
Problem 3: Failing to create the right kind of focus
  • This deals with the quality and direction of your attention
  • How you should apply your attention deals with two variables:
    • Arousal – your overall feeling of energy and alertness
      • This is caused by the sympathetic nervous system activation
      • Mentally, arousal also includes attention
      • High arousal creates a feeling of keen alertness, which is often characterized by feeling a narrow focus, but one that can also be somewhat brittle
    • Task complexity
      • More complex tests such as math problems or writing an essay tend to benefit from a more relaxed kind of focus
        • The space of focus is often larger and more diffuse
      • This has advantages when an order is the solve the problem you must consider many different inputs and ideas
        • Some tasks may require this mental quietness
        • Some particularly creative tasks may benefit from no focus at all and taking a break from the problem to allow for eureka moments
          • This however only occurs when one has focused on a problem for long enough that the breakthrough can occur in a relaxed state
  • Consider optimizing your arousal levels to sustain the ideal level of focus
    • Complex tasks may benefit from lower arousal, so working in a quiet room may work
    • Simpler tasks might benefit from a noisier environment like working at a coffee shop

Chapter 6: principle three – directness: go straight ahead

  • Directness is the hallmark of most ultralearning projects
    • His example approach is to show that the learning activities are always done in connection to the context in which the skills learned will eventually be used
    • The easiest way to learn directly this is simply do the thing you want to get good at
      • This won’t work for all projects, but it is something you can gradually increase to improve your performance
  • Studies over decades show that general transfer of knowledge in one area into another doesn’t exist and general discipline as a muscle is not a valid concept
    • However, one researcher says the transfer is paradoxical
      • “When we want it, we don’t get it. Yet it occurs all the time”
      • Transfer tends to be harder when our knowledge is more limited
        • As we develop more knowledge and skill in one area, they become more flexible and easier to apply outside the narrow context which they were learned
        • His own hypothesis as an explanation for the transfer problem: most formal learning is woefully indirect
  • Initial learning efforts often stick stubbornly to the situations we learn them in
    • The problem is that learning directly is hard
    • It is often more frustrating, challenging, and intense than reading a book or attending a lecture
      • But this very difficulty creates a potential source of competitive advantage for any would-be ultralearner
Learning Tactics
  • Tactic 1: project-based learning
  • Tactic 2: immersive learning
  • Tactic 3: the flight simulator method
  • Tactic 4: the overkill approach
    • Put yourself in an environments where the demands will be extremely high so you’re unlikely to miss any important lessons or feedback

Chapter 7: principle four – drill: attack your weakest point

  • Benjamin Franklin’s mastery of writing is what made him great
    • It was how he practice, the way he decided to break apart the skill of writing and practiced its elements in isolation which allowed him to apply this mastery to other pursuits
  • There are rate-determining steps in learning anything that acts as a bottleneck and determines your overall performance
    • Drills allow you to improve these rate-determining step in isolation which will improve your overall performance
  • A direct-then-drill approach is first trying to practice a skill directly, then analyze the direct skill and try to isolate components that are either rate-determining steps in your performance, or sub-skills you find difficult to improve because there are too many other things going on for you to focus on them
    • The final step is to go back to direct practice and integrate what you’ve learned
  • Drill 1: Time slicing – Isolate a slice in time of the longer sequence of actions
  • Drill 2: Cognitive components
  • Drill 3: The copycat – Copy the aspects you don’t want to drill so that you can isolate the aspects you do, such as copying a painting from someone else but practicing one aspect component
  • Drill 4: The magnifying glass method – spend more time on one component of the scale than you would otherwise
  • Drill 5: Prerequisite chain – start on hard skills and learn prerequisite foundational skills as needed, which saves time from learning sub skills that don’t drive performance

Reader’s note: this section of drilling reminds me of the idea of removing the bottleneck to improve the overall performance of a system from the book The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt

  • Drilling is difficult, but something mentally strenuous provides a greater benefit to learning than some thing easy

Chapter 8: principle five – retrieval: test to learn

  • Study showed testing yourself, trying to retrieve information without looking at the text, aka free recall or self-testing, clearly outperformed both simple review and concept mapping methods
    • This might be because:
      1. You get feedback
      2. Self-testing is more directly related to actual testing and therefore transfer is more likely
  • Increasing the difficulty and testing yourself way before you are ready is more efficient compared to low-intensity learning strategies which involve less or easier retrieval
    • Giving a test later when information is not top of mind improves retention because it is more difficult
    • However, testing too late so that you forgotten the information entirely is not beneficial
      • You need to find a good midpoint
  • The concept of forward retrieval is that early testing may help for retrieval later on for information not yet learned
  • Nearly any fact or concept is now available to anyone with a smart phone. However this hasn’t made the modern person thousands of times smarter than before
    • Being able to look things up is certainly an advantage, but without a certain amount of knowledge inside your head, it doesn’t help you solve hard problems
Useful methods to apply retrieval to almost any subject
  1. Flashcards
  2. Free recall
  3. The question book method – rephrase your recorded notes as questions to be answered later
    • What’s harder and more useful is to restate the big idea of a chapter or section as a question because it requires deeper thinking
  4. Self-generated challenges
  5. Closed book learning

Chapter 9: Principle Six – feedback: don’t dodge the punches

  • The ability to gain immediate feedback on one’s performance is an essential ingredient in reaching expert levels of performance
  • The type of feedback is important
    • Feedback works well when it provides useful information that can guide future learning such as what you were doing wrong and how you can fix it
    • However, feedback often backfires when it is aimed at a persons ego
      • Praise, for example, is usually harmful to further learning
        • When feedback steers into an evaluation of you as an individual, it usually has a negative impact on learning
  • Ultralearners need to be sensitive to what feedback that is actually useful and tune out the rest
  • Fear of feedback often feels more uncomfortable than experiencing the feedback itself
    • It is not so much negative feedback on its own that can impede progress, but the fear of hearing criticism that causes us to shut down
    • Sometimes the best action is to dive straight into the hardest environment which can reduce your fears of getting started initially
      • It will allow you to adjust accordingly if the feedback is too harsh to be useful 
  • Three types of feedback:
    1. Outcome feedback
    2. Informational feedback
    3. Corrective feedback
  • Outcome feedback tells you how you are doing overall, but not what you’re doing right or wrong, why, or how to improve
  • Informational feedback can tell you what you are doing wrong, but not how to fix it
    • This is easy to obtain when you can get live, real time feedback like an audience’s reaction
  • Corrective feedback is the best type of feedback because it can show you what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it
    • This type is typically only available through a coach, mentor, or teacher, or certain studying tools
  • The best feedback is informative and usable by the student who receives it
    • Optimal feedback indicates the difference between the current state and the desired state, and helps students take a step to improve their learning
  • Research shows that immediate feedback is superior in regards to timing
  • Trying to avoid situations that always make you feel good or bad about your performance
    • Sometimes is the easiest way to improve feedback ss simply to get a lot more of it a lot more often
  • Though short-term feedback can be stressful, once you get into the habit of receiving it, it becomes easier to process without overreacting emotionally

Chapter 10: principle Seven – retention: don’t fill a leaky bucket

  • Memory is essential to learning things well 
    • In terms of memory, our minds are a leaky bucket
      • But most of the holes are at the top so the water that remains at the bottom leaks out more slowly
      • We tend to forget information quickly but then it tapers off after a while
  • Four mechanisms of retention:
    1. Spacing
    2. Proceduralization
    3. Overlearning
    4. Numonics
  • Spacing learning sessions over more intervals across a longer periods of time helps with long-term retention, though lower performance in the short-term because of forgetting
    • Another strategy for applying spacing is to semi-regularly do refresher projects
  • Procedural information tends to be stored for much longer so it may benefit to you practice a core set of information instead of everything evenly
    • Not all skills can become automatic and proceduralized
  • Overlearning is additional practice beyond what is required to perform adequately which can increase the length of time that memory is stored 
  • Numonics – a picture retains 1000 words

Chapter 11: principle Eight – intuition: dig deep before building up

Useful guidelines for doing things differently:
  1. Rule one: don’t give up on hard problems easily
  2. Rule two: prove things to understand them. Working through things yourself can help you develop the capacity for deep intuition
  3. Rule three: always start with a concrete example
  4. Rule four: don’t fool yourself. Explaining things clearly and asking dumb questions can keep you from fooling yourself into thinking you know something you don’t
  • The Feynman Technique:
    • First, write down the problem or concept you want to understand at the top of the paper
    • Second, in the space below, explain the idea as if you had to teach it to someone else or convey the idea to someone who’s never heard of it
      • Explain how to solve it and why the procedure makes sense
    • Third, when you get stuck and your understanding fails to provide a clear answer, go back to your reference material to find your answer

Reader’s note: This concept is just like teaching in order to understand and learn better

Chapter 12: principle Nine – experimentation: explore outside your comfort zone

  • Variation is important to finding style or method that works for you
    • Find one that will take advantage of your strengths and diminish your weaknesses, just like what Van Gogh did
    • Aggressive exploration and tenacity we’re also key to Van Gogh’s success
  • Experimentation is the key to mastery
    • As you approach mastery, many skills reward proficiency as well as originality
    • As creativity becomes valuable, experimentation becomes essential 
  • Three types of experimentation:
    1. Experimenting with learning methods, materials, and resources
    2. Experimenting with technique 
    3. Experimenting with style
  • The key to experimenting with different styles is to be aware of all the different styles that exist
The mindset to experimentation
  • Experimentation requires a growth mindset, as referenced by psychologist Carol Dweck
  • How to experiment:
    1. Copy then create
    2. Compare methods side-by-side
    3. Introduce new constraints – The best innovations come from working within constraints
    4. Find your superpower in the hybrid of unrelated skills
    5. Explore the extremes

Chapter 13: Your First Ultralearning Project

  • Step one: do your research
    • Ultralearning “packing” checklist:
      1. What topic you’re going to learn and it’s approximate scope. He suggest starting with a narrow scope and expanding it as needed 
      2. The primary resources you’re going to use
      3. A benchmark for how others I have successfully learned this skill or subject
      4. Direct practice activities
      5. Back up materials and drills
  • Step two: schedule your time 
    • Consistency breeds good habits, reducing the effort required to study
  • Step three: execute it
  • Step four: review your results 
  • Step five: choose to maintain or master what you’ve learned 
    • If you want to maintain your skills, schedule in time to practice it every so often or try to integrate your new skills into your life somehow
    • Sometimes the cost of re-learning a skill is smaller than the cost of keeping it continuously sharp
      • One reason may be you might have learned more than you actually need. Also, re-learning is generally easier than first time learning
Alternatives to ultralearning: Low intensity habits and formal instruction
  • Being an ultralearner doesn’t imply that everything one learns has to be done in the most aggressive and dramatic fashion possible
  • Two main alternative strategies to ultralearning to see how they fit into a bigger picture of lifelong learning
  • Alternative strategy one: low intensity habits
    • These work well when engaging in learning is spontaneous, frustration level is low, and learning is automatically rewarding
    • Enjoyment tends to come from being good at things. Once you feel competent in a skill, it starts to get a lot more fun
      • Therefore, he thinks pursuing aggressive ultralearning projects is often the surer way to enjoy learning more as you’re more likely to reach a level where learning automatically becomes fun
  • Alternative strategy two: formal, structured education
    • The benefits of formal structured education is it allows you to interact with people in groups and with teachers or mentors

Chapter 14: an unconventional education

  • Psychologists recognize large difference between goals pursued intrinsically based on their own decisions, interests, and targets, and goals that they pursue extrinsically pushed by overbearing parents, punishing curricula, or demanding employers
    • The latter type, because the motivation for conforming to them comes primarily from outside social pressures are the cause of much misery
How to raise an Ultralearner
  • László Polgár, the man who raised his three daughters to be chess geniuses, outlined in his book how to turn any normal, healthy child into a genius
  • First step is to start early
    • Education should begin no later than three, and specialization to begin no later than six
    • There is evidence from other fields that children’s brains are more plastic and flexible when younger
  • The second step is to specialize
    • Even though the girls learned mathematics, language, sports, and other subjects, their focus was always in chess
      • Here they played 5 to 6 hours per day
    • By specializing in one subject, the children could reach proficiency at an early age
      • Winning against older and more experienced opponents in chess with build their self-confidence and competitive spirit so that they actively wanted to practice more to improve themselves
  • The third step was to make practice into play
    • Keeping the game fun and light was a key steppingstone to developing a drive and self-confidence that would support more serious effort later
    • However, he insisted that “play is not the opposite of work, and a child does not need play separate from work, but meaningful action”
  • Fourth, he was careful to create positive reinforcement, to make chess a pleasant rather than frustrating experience
    • Failure, suffering, and fearfulness decreased achievement
  • Lastly, he was against coercive learning
    • Self-discipline, motivation, and commitment must come from the children themselves
      • One can never achieve serious pedagogical results especially at a high-level through coercion
      • One of the most important educational tasks is to teach self-education
  • In the beginning, you can start with projects that are more unique until your skill level and self confidence builds up
    • When your skill increases, you can challenge yourself and create a competitive environment 
  • In the workplace, make learning a priority and create a culture of learning
  • Learning isn’t about replacing ignorance with understanding. Ignorance expands with knowledge
    • Greater knowledge comes a greater appreciation for all the qualities that remain unanswered
  • Confidence must be pared with great humility

Executive Summary:

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  • Most important key ideas
  • Action items & main takeaways

Closing thoughts:

I really loved this book! As an obsessive learner myself and strong advocate of self-education, this topics covered in this book was extremely enjoyable to learn about.

While general, more broad-topic books are great to read, I also love reading a book that goes into more depth over breadth. This was one of those books. He goes into not only anecdotal examples of real-life ultralearners, but also the science and evidence behind the principles of ultralearning. To me, the discussion of applicable concepts combined with anecdotal evidence makes this title more robust for the reader.

While this is a great read for everyone (as I think everyone benefits from self-directed learning), I especially recommend this to people who are interested in self-improvement and love learning as much as I do. I may be a “butcher advocating for eating meat,” but I think happiness does indeed come from realizing your potential and overcoming limiting beliefs.

Like Tony Robbins says, growth is happiness.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

My one personal takeaway would be a simple one:

  • Start my own ultralearning project

When I look at my long-term goals (1-5 year goals), there are two things that come to mind of what I want to learn and really get good at:

  1. Standup comedy
  2. Podcasting / interviewing

Both have to do with skills of communicating and speaking, which are two of my strengths. So developing these two specific skillsets would add on to and take advantage of my existing strengths.

My plan for standup was this year was to create a schedule for direct practice by doing open mics at least once per week and get feedback from fellow comedians and friends. However, since the pandemic closed down comedy clubs and bars, my adjusted plan is to continue writing jokes, film myself doing test sets, and find opportunities to practice my material in front small groups of people.

For podcasting, I plan to launch within the next year and start getting direct practice through interviewing guests. From there, I can solicit feedback and learn as I go.

Similar books:


Rating: 4 out of 5.


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