Book Summary: Ultralearning by Scott Young | Bonus Infographic
Updated: Oct 24
The 9 Principles of Ultralearning Summarised:
Metalearning: Learn How to Learn
Focus: Reduce distractions
Directness: Learn by doing
Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point
Feedback: Immediate, Intense and Accurate Feedback
Retention: Improve your memory
Intuition: Focus on Examples
Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone
Ultrealearning Summary in a simple Infographic
Ultralearning is a potent skill for dealing with a changing world. The ability to learn hard things quickly is going to become increasingly valuable, and thus it is worth developing to whatever extent you can, even if it requires some investment first.
Feedback works well when it provides useful information that can guide future learning. If feedback tells you what you’re doing wrong or how to fix it, it can be a potent tool. But feedback often backfires when it is aimed at a person’s ego. Praise, a common type of feedback that teachers often use (and students enjoy), is usually harmful to further learning.
Toby's Top Takeaway
This is an excellent book on the principles of learning. I'm constantly looking for new ways to learn effectively and quickly. The 9 principles provided very practical ways to help in my personal projects. The principle that made me change most was:
Design your learning environment to enable you to learn quickly.
Since reading the book I have made several alterations to my environment to help increase learning. In particular, removing distractions. When learning I now hide my phone in the kitchen draw to avoid distraction.
A longer Ultralearning summary if you have more time…
Spend a long time learning
Not focused on extrinsic rewards
Focused on optimisation
Intrinsic motivation to learn
Transitioning to a new career
Cultivating a hidden advantage in a competitive world.
Three ways to apply Ultralearning:
new part-time projects
reimagining existing learning efforts.
9 Principles Described:
Meta-learning: First Draw a Map. Start by learning how to learn the subject or skill you want to tackle. Discover how to do good research and how to draw on your past competencies to learn new skills more easily.
Focus: Sharpen Your Knife. Cultivate the ability to concentrate. Carve out chunks of time when you can focus on learning, and make it easy to just do it.
Directness: Go Straight Ahead. Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at. Don’t trade it off for other tasks, just because those are more convenient or comfortable.
Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point. Be ruthless in improving your weakest points. Break down complex skills into small parts; then master those parts and build them back together again.
Retrieval: Test to Learn. Testing isn’t simply a way of assessing knowledge but a way of creating it. Test yourself before you feel confident, and push yourself to actively recall information rather than passively review it.
Feedback: Don’t Dodge the Punches. Feedback is harsh and uncomfortable. Know how to use it without letting your ego get in the way. Extract the signal from the noise, so you know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket. Understand what you forget and why. Learn to remember things not just for now but forever.
Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up. Develop your intuition through play and exploration of concepts and skills. Understand how understanding works, and don’t recourse to cheap tricks of memorization to avoid deeply knowing things.
Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone. All of these principles are only starting points. True mastery comes not just from following the path trodden by others but from exploring possibilities they haven’t yet imagined.
PRINCIPLE 1 Metalearning First Draw a Map
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.—Isaac Newton
Learning about how knowledge is structured and acquired within this subject; in other words, learning how to learn it.
Metalearning thus forms the map, showing you how to get to your destination without getting lost.
“What?” refers to the knowledge and abilities you’ll need to acquire in order to be successful. Breaking things down into concepts, facts, and procedures can enable you to map out what obstacles you’ll face and how best to overcome them.
“How?” refers to the resources, environment, and methods you’ll use when learning. Making careful choices here can make a big difference in your overall effectiveness.
Technique - Breakdown learning into:
Concepts - What needs to be understood?
Facts - What needs to be memorized?
Procedures - What needs to be practised?
The way to start any learning project is by finding the common ways in which people learn the skill or subject.
PRINCIPLE 2 Focus Sharpen Your Knife
Now I will have less distraction.—Leonhard Euler, mathematician, upon losing the sight in his right eye
Distraction Source 1: Your Environment
Distraction Source 2: Your Task
Distraction Source 3: Your Mind
Complex tasks may benefit from lower arousal, so working in a quiet room at home might be the right idea for math problems. Simpler tasks might benefit from a noisier environment, say working at a coffee shop.
PRINCIPLE 3 Directness Go Straight Ahead
He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water jar.—Leonardo da Vinci
What is directness?
Directness is the idea of learning being tied closely to the situation or context you want to use it in.
We want to become great speakers, so we buy a book on communication, rather than practice presenting. In all these cases the problem is the same: 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.
The easiest way to learn directly is to simply spend a lot of time doing the thing you want to become good at.
Transfer has been called the “Holy Grail of education.” It happens when you learn something in one context, say in a classroom, and are able to use it in another context, say in real life.
Tactics to learn directly:
Tactic 1: Project-Based Learning
Many ultralearners opt for projects rather than classes to learn the skills they need.
Tactic 2: Immersive Learning
Immersion is the process of surrounding yourself with the target environment in which the skill is practiced.
Tactic 3: The Flight Simulator Method
This suggests that when direct practice is impossible, a simulation of the environment will work to the degree to which it remains faithful to the cognitive elements of the task in question.
Tactic 4: The Overkill Approach
Put yourself into an environment where the demands are going to be extremely high, so you’re unlikely to miss any important lessons or feedback.
PRINCIPLE 4 Drill Attack Your Weakest Point
Take care of the bars and the piece will take care of itself.—Philip Johnston, composer
Why use Drills?
Learning, I’d like to argue, often works similarly, with certain aspects of the learning problem forming a bottleneck that controls the speed at which you can become more proficient overall.
By identifying a rate-determining step in your learning reaction, you can isolate it and work on it specifically. Since it governs the overall competence you have with that skill, by improving at it you will improve faster than if you try to practice every aspect of the skill at once.
Drills resolve this problem by simplifying a skill enough that you can focus your cognitive resources on a single aspect.
Practice the skill directly.
Analyze the direct skill and try to isolate components that are either rate-determining steps in your performance
Go back to direct practice and integrate what you’ve learned.
The easiest way to create a drill is to isolate a slice in time of a longer sequence of actions.
Sometimes what you’ll want to practice isn’t a slice in time of a larger skill but a particular cognitive component.
To solve this problem in your own learning, you can take a page from Franklin: by copying the parts of the skill you don’t want to drill (either from someone else or your past work), you can focus exclusively on the component you want to practice.
The Magnifying Glass Method
Spend more time on one component of the skill than you would otherwise.
This practice of starting too hard and learning prerequisites as they are needed can be frustrating, but it saves a lot of time learning subskills that don’t actually drive performance much.
PRINCIPLE 5 Retrieval Test to Learn
It pays better to wait and recollect by an effort from within, than to look at the book again.—William James, psychologist
Testing yourself works best:
Imagine you’re a student preparing for an exam. You have three choices about how you can allocate your limited studying time.
First, you can review the material. You can look over your notes and book and study everything until you’re sure you’ll remember it.
Second, you can test yourself. You can keep the book shut and try to remember what was in it.
Finally, you can create a concept map. You can write out the main concepts in a diagram, showing how they’re organized and related to other items you need to study.
If you can pick only one, which one should you choose to do best on the final exam?
Testing yourself—trying to retrieve information without looking at the text—clearly outperformed all other conditions.
Tactic 1: Flash Cards
Tactic 2: Free Recall
A simple tactic for applying retrieval is, after reading a section from a book or sitting through a lecture, to try to write down everything you can remember on a blank piece of paper.
Tactic 3: The Question-Book Method
another strategy for taking notes is to rephrase what you’ve recorded as questions to be answered later. Instead of writing that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, you could instead write the question “When was the Magna Carta signed?” with a reference to where to find the answer in case you forget. By taking notes as questions instead of answers, you generate the material to practice retrieval on later.
Tactic 4: Self-Generated Challenges
Tactic 5: Closed-Book Learning
PRINCIPLE 6 Feedback Don’t Dodge the Punches
Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.—Mike Tyson
Feedback is key:
Feedback is one of the most consistent aspects of the strategy ultralearners use.
What often separated the ultralearning strategy from more conventional approaches was the immediacy, accuracy, and intensity of the feedback being provided.
More interestingly, the research on feedback shows that more isn’t always better. Crucially, what matters is the type of feedback being given.
Feedback works well when it provides useful information that can guide future learning. If feedback tells you what you’re doing wrong or how to fix it, it can be a potent tool. But feedback often backfires when it is aimed at a person’s ego. Praise, a common type of feedback that teachers often use (and students enjoy), is usually harmful to further learning. When feedback steers into evaluations of you as an individual (e.g., “You’re so smart!” or “You’re lazy”), it usually has a negative impact on learning.
The first is overreacting to feedback (both positive and negative) that doesn’t offer specific information that leads to improvement. Ultralearners need to be sensitive to what feedback is actually useful and tune out the rest.
Second, when it is incorrectly applied, feedback can have a negative impact on motivation.
Three types of feedback
Outcome Feedback: Are You Doing It Wrong?
This tells you something about how well you’re doing overall but offers no ideas as to what you’re doing better or worse. This kind of feedback can come in the form of a grade—pass/fail
This type of feedback is often the easiest to get,
Informational Feedback: What Are You Doing Wrong?
This feedback tells you what you’re doing wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you how to fix it. Speaking a foreign language with a native speaker who doesn’t share a language with you is an exercise in informational feedback.
Corrective Feedback: How Can You Fix What You’re Doing Wrong?
This is the feedback that shows you not only what you’re doing wrong but how to fix it. This kind of feedback is often available only through a coach, mentor, or teacher.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR FEEDBACK
Tactic 1: Noise Cancellation
Tactic 2: Hitting the Difficulty Sweet Spot
Tactic 3: Metafeedback
This kind of feedback isn’t about your performance but about evaluating the overall success of the strategy you’re using to learn.
Tactic 4: High-Intensity, Rapid Feedback
By throwing yourself into a high-intensity, rapid feedback situation, you may initially feel uncomfortable, but you’ll get over that initial aversion much faster than if you wait months or years before getting feedback.
PRINCIPLE 7 Retention Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket
Memory is the residue of thought.—Daniel Willingham, cognitive psychologist
How can you retain all of the things you learn?
How can you defend against forgetting hard-won facts and skills?
How can you store the knowledge you’ve acquired so that it can be easily retrieved exactly when you need it?
Three reasons we forget:
Forgetting with Time The first theory of forgetting is that memories simply decay with time.
Overwriting Old Memories with New Ones Interference suggests a different idea: that our memories, unlike the files of a computer,
What may happen in this case is that one of the links in the chain of retrieving the information has been severed (perhaps by decay or interference) and therefore the entire memory has become inaccessible.
Ways to improve memory:
Repeat to Remember One of the pieces of studying advice that is best supported by research is that if you care about long-term retention, don’t cram.
If you have ten hours to learn something, therefore, it makes more sense to spend ten days studying one hour each than to spend ten hours studying in one burst.
There’s evidence that procedural skills, such as riding a bicycle, are stored in a different way from declarative knowledge, such as knowing the Pythagorean
This difference between knowing how and knowing that may also have different implications for long-term memory.
Overlearning: Practice Beyond Perfect
additional practice, beyond what is required to perform adequately, can increase the length of time that memories are stored.
What they have in common is that they tend to be hyperspecific—that is, they are designed to remember very specific patterns of information. Second, they usually involve translating abstract or arbitrary information into vivid pictures or spatial maps.
PRINCIPLE 8 Intuition Dig Deep Before Building Up
Do not ask whether a statement is true until you know what it means.—Errett Bishop, mathematician
4 rules to follow:
Rule 1: Don’t Give Up on Hard Problems Easily
One way you can introduce this into your own efforts is to give yourself a “struggle timer” as you work on problems. When you feel like giving up and that you can’t possibly figure out the solution to a difficult problem, try setting a timer for another ten minutes to push yourself a bit further.
Rule 2: Prove Things to Understand Them
Get out a piece of paper, and try, briefly, to sketch how a bicycle looks. It doesn’t need to be a work of art; just try to place the seat, handles, tires, pedals, and bike chain in the right place. Can you do it? Don’t cheat by just trying to visualize the bicycle. Actually see if you can draw it. If you don’t have a pencil or paper handy, you can simulate it by saying which things connect to what. Have you tried it? Interestingly, Rebecca Lawson’s study asked participants to do exactly this. As the illustrations clearly show, most participants had no idea how the machines were assembled, even though they used them all the time and believed they understood them quite well. The illusion of understanding is very often the barrier to deeper knowledge, because unless that competency is actually tested, it’s easy to mislead yourself into thinking you understand more than you do.
Rule 3: Always Start with a Concrete Example
Human beings don’t learn things very well in the abstract. As the research on transfer demonstrates, most people learn abstract, general rules only after being exposed to many concrete examples. It’s not possible to simply present a general principle and expect that you can apply it to concrete situations.
Rule 4: Don’t Fool Yourself
“Don’t fool yourself” was one of Feynman’s most popular aphorisms, to which he added, “and you’re the easiest person to fool.” He was deeply skeptical of his own understanding.
The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when someone with inadequate understanding of a subject nonetheless believes he or she possesses more knowledge about the subject than the people who actually do. This can occur because when you lack knowledge about a subject, you also tend to lack the ability to assess your own abilities.
THE FEYNMAN TECHNIQUE
Write down the concept or problem you want to understand at the top of a piece of paper.
In the space below, explain the idea as if you had to teach it to someone else. If it’s a concept, ask yourself how you would convey the idea to someone who has never heard of it before. If it’s a problem, explain how to solve it and—crucially—why that solution procedure makes sense to you.
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.
PRINCIPLE 9 Experimentation Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone
Results? Why, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.—Thomas Edison
EXPERIMENTATION IS THE KEY TO MASTERY
Experimenting with Learning Resources The first place to experiment is with the methods, materials, and resources you use to learn.
Experimenting with Technique
the question becomes not “How can I learn this?” but “What should I learn next?”
Experimenting with Style
After you’ve matured in your learning a bit, the difficulty often switches from which resources to learn from or which techniques you’d like to master to the style you’d like to cultivate.
HOW TO EXPERIMENT
Tactic 1: Copy, Then Create
Tactic 2: Compare Methods Side-by-Side
Tactic 3: Introduce New Constraints
Powerful technique for pushing out of those grooves of routine is by introducing new constraints that make the old methods impossible to use.
How can you add limitations to force yourself to develop new capacities?
Tactic 4: Find Your Superpower in the Hybrid of Unrelated Skills
Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, likened his own success to following this strategy by combining his background as an engineer with an MBA and a cartoonist.
Tactic 5: Explore the Extremes
How to do an Ultralearning Project?
STEP 1: DO YOUR RESEARCH
What topic you’re going to learn and its approximate scope.
The primary resources you’re going to use.
Benchmark for how others have successfully learned this skill or subject.
Direct practice activities.
Backup materials and drills.
STEP 2: SCHEDULE YOUR TIME
The first decision you should make is how much time you’re going to commit.
The second decision you need to make is when you are going to learn.
The third decision you need to make is the length of time for your project.
STEP 3: EXECUTE YOUR PLAN
STEP 4: REVIEW YOUR RESULTS
STEP 5: CHOOSE TO MAINTAIN OR MASTER WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED
Questions to guide Ultralearning
Have I done research into what are the typical ways of learning this subject or skill?
Have I interviewed successful learners to see what resources and advice they can recommend?
Have I spent about 10 percent of the total time on preparing my project?
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?
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?
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’s too many components of the skill to master?
If so, how can I split apart a complex skill to work on smaller, more manageable components of it?
Am I spending most 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?
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?
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?
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?
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?