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

Scott H. Young
Rating: 8.0

“How do you master a difficult subject more quickly than by sitting through years of classes? Read Ultralearning for specific directions on structuring and absorbing complex topics in record time. This short book provides you with a step-by-step guide to becoming an ultra-fast learner.”
-Robert Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity and Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management

Have you always dreamed of speaking French fluently, however, you somehow let go of that idea because it seems unrealistic? Would computer programming give you a professional advantage if you only you could create time to study it? No matter what your personal or professional ambitions might be, ultralearning can help you achieve them in record time.

Ultralearning is an aggressive, self-motivated way of learning that allows people to swiftly and efficiently master complex skills. Using this method of learning makes them become ultra learners. At first, their accomplishments might look unapproachable; just think along the lines of learning a new language in less than three months. However, the reality is that anybody can use the ultralearning approach and see results.

These following chapters will highlight the main principles of ultralearning and give you certain approaches and techniques you need to begin your own ultralearning project and successfully pull it off!

Can You Get an MIT Education Without Going to MIT

“Always have a challenge, “Lewis told me as he continued with his life advice,

What if, instead of just hoping you’d practice enough, you don’t give yourself an escape route?

Why Ultralearning Matters?

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 doing easy things; they come from realizing your potential and overcoming your own limiting beliefs about yourself.

You need to move into the higher-skilled category, where learning is constant, or you’ll be pushed into the lower-skilled category at the bottom.The core of the ultralearning strategy is intensity and a willingness to prioritize effectiveness.

How to Become an Ultralearner?

It was his obsessive work ethic. His goal wasn’t to reach some predetermined extreme but to see how far he could go. Ultralearning isn’t a cookie-cutter method. Every project is unique, and so are the methods needed to master it.

There are nine universal principles that underlie the ultralearning projects

  • Metalearning: 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

The way to start any learning project is by finding the common ways in which people learn the skill or subject. Start looking at how the knowledge in your subject is structured. A good way to do this is to write down on a sheet of paper three columns with the headings “Concepts, ““Facts, “and “Procedures. ”

Over the short term, you can do research to focus on improving your metalearning before and during a learning project.

Over the long term, the more ultralearning projects you do, the larger your set of general metalearning skills will be.

Principle 2 : Focus – Sharpen Your Knife

The struggles with focus that people have generally come in three broad varieties: starting, sustaining, and optimizing the quality of one’s focus. Ultralearners are relentless in coming up with solutions to handle these three problems,

The Pomodoro Technique: twenty-five minutes of focus followed by a five-minute break.

Carve out specific hours of your day in advance to work on the project.

The psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, the researcher behind deliberate practice, argues that flow has characteristics that are “inconsistent with the demands of deliberate practice for monitoring explicit goals and feedback and opportunities for error correction. My advice? Don’t worry about flow.

Taking a break from the problem can widen the space of focus enough that possibilities that were not in your consciousness earlier can conjoin and you can make new discoveries.

You may want to 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 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

Directness is the idea of learning being tied closely to the situation or context you want to use it in.

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. Learning activities are always done with a connection to the context in which the skills learned will eventually be used.

The structures of our knowledge start out brittle, welded to the environments and contexts we learn them in, with more work and time they can become flexible and can be applied more broadly.

  • Tactic 1: Project-Based Learning- Many ultralearners opt for projects rather than classes to learn the skills they need. The rationale is simple: if you organize your learning around producing something, you’re guaranteed to at least learn how to produce that thing.
  • Tactic 2: Immersive Learning
  • Tactic 3: The Flight Simulator Method – 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 – Increase the challenge, so that the skill level required is wholly contained within the goal that is set.

Principle 4 : Drill – Attack Your Weakest Point

The first step is to try to practice the skill directly. This means figuring out where and how the skill will be used and then trying to match that situation as close as is feasible when practicing.

The next step is to analyze the direct skill and try to isolate components that are either rate-determining steps in your performance or subskills you find difficult to improve because there are too many other things going on for you to focus on them. From here you can develop drills and practice those components separately until you get better at them.

The final step is to go back to direct practice and integrate what you’ve learned.

  • Drill 1: Time Slicing – The easiest way to create a drill is to isolate a slice in time of a longer sequence of actions.
  • Drill 2: Cognitive Components
  • Drill 3: The Copycat  – 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.
  • Drill 4: The Magnifying Glass Method – The Magnifying Glass Method is to spend more time on one component of the skill than you would otherwise.
  • Drill 5: Prerequisite Chaining – 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.

Something mentally strenuous provides a greater benefit to learning than something easy.

Principle 5 : Retrieval – Test to Learn

When you review something passively, you don’t get any feedback about what you know and don’t know. Since tests usually come with feedback, that might explain why students who practiced self-testing beat the concept mappers or passive reviewers. More difficult retrieval leads to better learning, provided the act of retrieval is itself successful.

Giving someone a test immediately after they learn something improves retention less than giving them a slight delay, long enough so that answers aren’t in mind when they need them.

  • Tactic 1: Flash Cards
  • Tactic 2: Free Recall – 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 – Restate the big idea of a chapter or section as a question. One rule I’ve found helpful for this is to restrict myself to one question per section of a text,
  • Tactic 4: Self-Generated Challenges
  • Tactic 5: Closed-Book Learning – Nearly any learning activity can become an opportunity for retrieval if you cut off the ability to search for hints.

Ramanujan’s genius was aided immeasurably by two hallmarks of the ultralearner’s tool kit: obsessive intensity and retrieval practice.

Principle 6 : Feedback – Don’t Dodge the Punches

What often separated the ultralearning strategy from more conventional approaches was the immediacy, accuracy, and intensity of the feedback being provided.

The ability to gain immediate feedback on one’s performance is an essential ingredient in reaching expert levels of performance. 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.

Ultralearners need to be sensitive to what feedback is actually useful and tune out the rest. Fear of feedback often feels more uncomfortable than experiencing the feedback itself.

Three types of feedback: outcome feedback, informational feedback, and corrective feedback.

  • Outcome Feedback: Are You Doing It Wrong?
  • Informational Feedback: What Are You Doing Wrong?
  • Corrective Feedback: How Can You Fix What You’re Doing Wrong?

The main challenge with corrective feedback is that it typically requires access to a teacher, expert, or mentor who can pinpoint your mistakes and correct them for you. The self-directed nature of ultralearning shouldn’t convince you that learning is best done as an entirely solitary pursuit. Ultralearning isn’t simply about maximizing feedback but also knowing when to selectively ignore elements of it to extract the useful information.

In general, research has pointed to immediate feedback being superior in settings outside of the laboratory. Ultralearners carefully adjust their environment so that they’re not able to predict whether they’ll succeed or fail.

If your learning rate is slowing to a trickle, that might mean you’re hitting diminishing returns with your current approach and could benefit from different kinds of drills, difficulties, or environments.

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

If you care about long-term retention, don’t cram.

Space your study sessions too closely, and you lose efficiency; space them too far apart, and you forget what you’ve already learned. Procedural skills, such as the ever-remembered bicycling, are much less susceptible to being forgotten than knowledge that requires explicit recall to retrieve. Additional practice, beyond what is required to perform adequately, can increase the length of time that memories are stored.

There seem to be two main methods I’ve encountered for applying overlearning.

  • The first is core practice, continually practicing and refining the core elements of a skill.
  • The second strategy is advanced practice, going one level above a certain set of skills so that core parts of the lower-level skills are overlearned as one applies them in a more difficult domain.

Principle 8 : Intuition – Dig Deep Before Building Up

Whereas beginners tended to look at superficial features of the problem — such as whether the problem was about pulleys or inclined planes — experts focused on the deeper principles at work.

  • Rule 1: Don’t Give Up on Hard Problems Easily
  • Rule 2: Prove Things to Understand Them
  • Rule 3: Always Start with a Concrete Example

Flesh out a general principles

Principle 9 : Experimentation – Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone

Experiments, however, needn’t always be successful to have value, and van Gogh had many opportunities for trying new techniques. Although virtuoso talents might be able to latch on to the first style of instruction they are presented with and follow it to completion, others require a great deal of experimentation before the right method sticks.

Three Types of Experimentation

  1. Experimenting with Learning Resources
  2. Experimenting with Technique
  3. Experimenting with Style

The experimental mindset doesn’t just assume that growth is possible but creates an active strategy for exploring all the possible ways to reach it.

How to Experiment

  • Tactic 1: Copy, Then Create
  • Tactic 2: Compare Methods Side-by-Side
  • Tactic 3: Introduce New Constraints
  • Tactic 4: Find Your Superpower in the Hybrid of Unrelated Skills –  For many areas of creative or professional skills, another, more accessible, path is to combine two skills that don’t necessarily overlap to bring about a distinct advantage that those who specialize in only one of those skills do not have.
  • Tactic 5: Explore the Extremes

Your First Ultralearning Project

Shorter, spaced time chunks are better for memory than crammed chunks are. However, some types of tasks, such as writing and programming, have a long warm-up time that may benefit from longer uninterrupted time chunks. None of the ultralearners I encountered approaches learning the same way for every kind of learning they do.

Sometimes what’s the most fun isn’t very effective, and what’s effective isn’t easy.

The message of this book isn’t that you should drop out of school to learn on your own but that you should take control over your own learning, wherever that may be.

An Unconventional Education

In contrast to the stereotypical “tiger parent”, their parents encouraged their unusual specialization through play and positive feedback, not authority and punishment.

László Polgár wrote a book entitled Raise a Genius!, documenting his unorthodox approach to education.

  • The first step is to start early. The child’s education should begin no later than three, and specialization should begin no later than six.
  • The second step is to specialize.
  • The third step was to make practice into play.
  • Fourth, László was careful to create positive reinforcement to make chess a pleasant, rather than frustrating, experience.

“We should make sure not to always win against the child; we should let them win sometimes so that they feel they are also capable of thinking.”

“One can never achieve serious pedagogical results, especially at a high level, through coercion.”

László encouraged considerable play with real opponents but was careful to select “suitable partners, who have a generally similar playing ability.”

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