Book Review: Ultralearning by Scott Young

Ultralearning by Scott Young is a practical, well-written guide to learning things at speed. It should appeal to anyone who loves productivity hacks, deep work or general self-improvement. The book combines tactics with well-researched examples. This combination provides a clear introduction to some interesting learning techniques without feeling like a textbook.

The book opens with an introduction to the concept of Ultralearning and what separates it from regular learning. Ultralearning is intense, self-directed skill acquisition for a direct outcome. Young intentionally contrasts this with learning for fun, noting that while both can be a valuable use of time, Ultralearning is different. With some insight into the blight of self-help, Young calls out counterexamples where regular learning is enough and Ultralearning can fail.

Chapters 4 through 12 cover a set of principles Young defines as key to Ultralearning. Each chapter begins with a story capturing the principle and showing its application in the real world. These principles are the meat of the book; my reflections on some of these principles will follow. For an excellent introduction to Young’s writings, I highly recommend his post Do The Real Thing.

Principle 1 is Meta-learning. I found the most critical part of this chapter to be the emphasis on setting up Ultralearning projects. By their nature, these projects are intense and will take a lot of time. Having both a plan of attack and a good idea of why you’re setting out to learn something new can help keep things on track. I can certainly relate to getting halfway into learning a new skill and wonder why you decided to go down the path in the first place. Another good take away is using courses and textbooks as road maps to the topics you will need to cover.

Principle 2 is Focus. This chapter covers common ideas around time blocking, procrastination and generally getting things done. A comment that stuck with me was that a state of Flow is often incompatible with Ultralearning. Young states that the difficultly associated with Ultralearning projects is at odds with Flow. Roadblocks and not knowing what to do next tend to break the rhythm.

Principle 3 is directness. In the spirit of directness, go read Do The Real Thing. It summarises this chapter well.

Principle 4 is Drill. This chapter covers how to continue to attack a problem until your skills improve. The main principles here are finding the areas in which you are weakest and find ways to improve on those areas specifically. This chapter feels quite similar to How to do hard things.

Principle 5 is Retrieval. The chapter covers ideas, including recall as a method of learning. In several studies, free-recall (i.e. unprompted recall) outperformed other forms of study despite self-reported confidence being lower. The chapter covers several techniques for retrieval practice, including spaced-repetition, post-reading summaries for memory and self-generated testing.

Principle 6 is Feedback. The chapter focuses on three types of feedback. Outcome feedback which is a signal of overall win/loss often at the end of a task. Informational feedback which is more granular and outlines which variables are failing. Finally, corrective feedback which is informational feedback with the addition of some signal on how to correct the problem. Corrective feedback is hard and may require expert input. Noise can come from others, and asking for higher levels of feedback without preparation can lead to problems. People may guess or exhibit some form of ‘white coat’ feedback and tailor responses to what they expect the asker to want to hear. The chapter goes on to discuss different methods of ensuring feedback is of high quality. These methods include filtering noise from the signal, balancing negative and positive feedback, using metrics to get feedback on the rate of learning and to see high-frequency feedback.

Principle 7 is Retention. The chapter talks about why we forget. Some forgetting is linked to decay, the natural process of losing memories with time. Young then counters this idea with anecdotes of memories from childhood that are more vivid than those from more recent times. This likely indicates that there is some factor of importance applied to what gets remembered. Secondly, the forgetting but are rarely quickly accessible enough to serve real-time value.

Principle 8 is Intuition. The chapter covers ways to build intuition and dispel false confidence. One section that stood out was the idea that training yourself to ask a lot of questions is a cure for the Dunning Kruger Effect. A second technique covered was the “Feynman technique” which involves taking a problem or topic and aiming to explain it to a novice. This method can help to find areas where your explanation is lacking and direct further learning. An extension to this is instead aiming at a general audience; in this case, you’ll often need to use analogies to explain ideas which require a deeper understanding of the subject.

The final principle in the book is Experimentation. The chapter is focused on experiments as they relate to learning. The chapter covers experimentation with resources, technique and style of learning to ensure that you maintain a high rate of knowledge acquisition.

The remainder of the book covers starting an Ultralearning project and instilling these ideas in others, including children. Overall this is an excellent book and one I would recommend. It has inspired me to start an Ultralearning project of my own.

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