Book review — Ultralearning by Scott Young

Abhishek Kumar
3 min readFeb 17, 2020

Here’s the Ultralearning philosophy in a nutshell: You’re responsible for your learning outcomes. If the study process you’re using isn’t working, find a new one using research and experimentation.

The book teaches you how to learn things quickly and effectively, so you can improve valuable skills, acquire new knowledge, and ultimately become a better version of yourself faster. It goes on to list 9 Ultralearning principles.

Scott has studied people who have accomplished interesting and impressive feats of learning. And he has conducted his own learning experiments. The philosophy and principles are his effort to distill the approach that makes these projects successful.

The Nine Ultralearning principles are

1. Metalearning- Start by learning how to learn the subject or skill you want to tackle. Learn how to do good research and how to draw on your past competencies to learn new skills more easily.

2. Focus — Cultivate the ability to concentrate. Carve out chunks of time when you can focus on learning, and make it easy to just do it. Combined with “Deep Work” by Cal Newport, this becomes a powerful framework.

3. Directness — The directness principle says you should design your Ultralearning project to match the context where you plan to apply what you learn. In the book, there’s an example of an architecture student applying for jobs. Like most students, his portfolio includes typical student projects. But his job search gets better results when he designs a building of the type his target employer specializes in and produces it using the design software they use.

Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at. Don’t trade if off for other tasks, just because those are more convenient or comfortable.

4. Drill — Practice working on your weakest skill set since those are the ones holding you back

5. Retrieval — This is something which anyone who has learnt for taking a competitive test understands — Best way to learn is to take any many tests as possible (Mocks?) instead of spending time on reading basics again and again. Spend as much time as possible recalling what you know about a topic, even to the point of testing yourself on it before you start studying, to prepare your brain for the information to come.

6. Feedback — This ties in very closely with Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of learning — The only way to improve is to get consistent feedback while repeating the tasks. If you are not getting feedback on mistakes AND not improving on the task, you might just be repeating the same mistakes.

7. Retention — Ultralearning covers the theory of remembering and forgetting, and suggests four memory mechanisms: spacing out your learning, turning skills into procedures, learning beyond basic competence, and using mnemonics.

8. Intuition — To verify that you really understand something, and to develop your intuition, Scott has long recommended the Feynman Technique, which tests if you can explain a concept from scratch.

9. Experimentation — In theory, you could throw out the other principles and just experiment to find what works for you. Experimentation becomes increasingly important the more advanced you are in a skill. If you’re learning a moderately popular skill, you’ll find plenty of introductory tutorials. But as you develop expertise, you join a shrinking group of people who have dedicated time to studying that skill, so there are fewer resources available.

This one, straight from the book, really stuck a chord — The second reason is for your personal life. How many of us have dreams of playing an instrument, speaking a foreign language, becoming a chef, writer, or photographer? Your deepest moments of happiness don’t come from doing easy things; they come from realizing your potential and overcoming your own limiting beliefs about yourself. Ultralearning offers a path to master those things that will bring you deep satisfaction and self-confidence.

The faster we can learn, the faster we are able to grow as human beings. That’s why learning to learn is so essential. And that’s why this book is such a great resource.

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