Author: Scott H. Young. Bio from his website: “I’m a writer, programmer, traveler and avid reader of interesting things. For the last ten years I’ve been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better. I don’t promise I have all the answers, just a place to start.”
In my own words: I really liked this book. It gets into both the science and nuts and bolts of learning quickly. Lots of interesting techniques. He’s big on directness – just go do the thing and stumble through it.
Should You Read This Book?
If you have these challenges:
You want to take on an ambitious learning project for your own satisfaction or to pursue an external goal, such a a job change.
… then it might help you:
Learn faster and better using the techniques that ultralearners use.
Put together your own ultralearning program.
But you might not want to read it if:
You don’t want to read a lot of nerded-out discussions on learning.
You are looking to make learning easier or more enjoyable.
You are looking for tips, tricks, quick fixes, or hacks.
What I Got Out Of This Book
Ultralearning takes many productivity and learning concepts I was familiar with and puts them together with new (to me) ideas and techniques into one solid book in a way that would be hard to improve on.
Here’s the ideas that resonated the most with me or were new to me. Keep in mind that there are other core concepts discussed in the book that I’m not mentioning here because I was already familiar with them.
This is a book for learning nerds
This is not a book about shortcuts or hacks. This is a book about digging into the details of your learning process in a way that would make the casual learner say “yeah, I don’t think you really need to do all that, do you?” With ultralearning you are constantly examining your process and adjusting it. This is not a “set it and forget it” methodology. It takes a lot of metacognition and reflection.
The upside is that it helps you learn faster and better.
Concepts, Facts, and Procedures
When you are thinking about what you want to learn, consider the categories of concepts, facts, and procedures. Often, these can be learned best with different approaches and differentiating them can speed your learning.
Take learning a language, for example. The facts are the vocabulary. The concepts might be pronunciation or grammar and the procedures is speaking and listening the language. Vocabulary might best be done with flashcards, but you probably don’t want to memorize every single conjugation of every verb on flashcards. For that you’ll want to develop a deeper understanding. Writing or speaking might be a better method. Similarly, you’re not going to get get better at listening if all you do is reading.
“Obviously!” you might say.
Keep in mind that this is a simple example. With ultralearning the devil is details of thinking deeply and planning your process mindfully, not just jumping in.
Arguably the core of his methodology. The sooner and the more frequent you just do the thing you want to learn, the better. There’s example of people going to a country to learn a new language and from day one they never speak any of their native language. It’s a struggle. It’s the deep end. It’s frustrating and scary. It can be boring and it can be intense.
There are, of course, many things you might want to learn that you can’t immerse yourself in on day one. For those he offers suggestions on how to simulate them or get closer to doing the thing you want to do.
Directness has lots of benefits including getting over your fear of doing it, it self-sorts the things you need to know from the extraneous stuff a textbook or classroom might provide you, and it removes what I’ll call the “friction of reality”. It’s all well and good to practice that speech in your bedroom but giving it in front of a 300 person audience brings up factors that you can’t replicate otherwise.
Transfer is the holy grail of education. It’s the idea that you can be taught a concept that solves a problem in one context and then when a similar problem comes up in a different context comes up you’ll be able to recognize it as a similar problem and solve the problem occurring in the new context.
This, sadly, rarely happens.
In fact, he says that “Researchers that rigorously evaluate training have said that demonstrable changes following training are hard to find.” Oof.
This makes a strong argument for directness. If you are doing safe, calculated classroom or book learning of something but never try it in the real world… it might not transfer there. If most of the learning is happening *where you want to use it*, then you don’t have to worry about transfer. You’re already in the right context.
Other Interesting Things I Learned
Formal Discipline Theory, the idea that you can “strengthen your brain” using puzzle apps or other sorts of games has long since been discredited but continues to sell products and services.
- Effort Required of you to get the most out of this book: Soul: 0%, Emotions: 50%, Mental: 50%, Physical: 0%.
- Topics Covered: Learning, Deliberate Practice, “Do the Work”
- Qualifications of Author: Been-there-done-that (He learned 4 languages in a year, passed th MIT Computer Science final exams after studying from home for only a year).
- Content Source: Author’s experience, Other’s research
- Content and Style
- Personableness: Neutral
- Writing Competency: Good
- Repetitiveness: New content all the way through
- Explanations: Good
- Organization: Great
- Anecdote level: Appropriate (10%)
- Convincingness of evidence: Good
- Annoyances: None.