Book:  Ultralearning

Author:  Scott Young

Purchase:  PrinteBookAudiobook

Citation:  Young, S. (2019). Ultralearning : master hard skills, outsmart the competition, and accelerate your career. New York City: HarperBusiness.

Three Big Takeaways:

  • Over the last twenty years, the amount of knowledge easily accessible from a quick online search has exploded. Nearly any fact or concept is now available on demand to anyone with a smartphone. Yet despite this incredible advance, it is not as if the average person is thousands as times smart as people were a generation ago. Being able to look things up is certainly an advantage, but without a certain amount of knowledge inside your head, it doesn't help you solve hard problems. (pg. 129)

  • If the principles-first way of thinking of problems is so much more effective, why don't students start there instead of attending to superficial characteristics? The simple answer may be that they can't. Only by developing enough experience with problem solving can you build up a deep mental model of how other problems work. Intuition sounds magical, but the reality is that you need to have a large volume of organized experience dealing with the problem to know how to approach the solution with principles. (pg. 182)

  • The traditional path to mastery is to take a well-defined skill and practice it relentlessly until you have become insanely good at it. This is the path taken by many athletes who train for decades to perfect their skill. However, 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. For instance, you might be a school superintendent who becomes really good at public speaking. You may not be the best possible superintendent or the best possible presenter, but combining those two skills could make you the best person to present on superintendent topics at conferences, thus giving you access to new professional opportunities. (pg. 211) 

Other Key Ideas:

  • James Clear learned writing by writing. He had a set schedule to write a new article every Monday and Thursday. Over the first two years, he produced more than 150 essays. Also, he systematically broke down each aspect of writing articles - the headline, the introductory sentence, the transitions, the storytelling, and more - and put together spreadsheets filled with examples of each segment. Then he set about testing and refining his ability to perform each small aspect of the larger task. (pg. XIII)

  • Technology exaggerates both the vices and virtues of humanity. Our vices are made worse because they are now downloadable, portable, and socially transmissible. The ability to distract or delude yourself has never been greater. Though those dangers are real, there is also an opportunity created in their wake. For those who know how to use technology wisely, it is the easiest time in history to teach yourself something new. (pg. 30)

  • Principles allow you to solve problems, even those you may have never encountered before. Principles make sense of the world, and even if they don't always articulate exactly how you should solve a particular challenge, they can provide immense guidance. (pg. 47)

  • Talk to people who have already achieved what you want to achieve. Reaching out and setting up a meeting with an expert isn't hard either, but it's a step many people shy away from. Many people recoil at the idea of reaching out to a stranger to ask for advice. They worry that they'll be rejected or ignored for presuming to take up a person's time. Most experts are more than willing to offer advice and are flattered by the thought that someone wants to learn from their experience. (pg. 60)

  • Much procrastination is unconscious. You're procrastinating, but you don't internalize it that way. Instead, you're "taking a much-needed break" or "having fun because life can't always be about work all the time." Make a mental habit of every time you procrastinate; try to recognize that you are feeling some desire not to do that task or a stronger desire to do something else. If you actually start working, it usually only takes a couple minutes until the worry starts to dissolve, even for fairly unpleasant tasks. (pg. 74)

  • Flow is often used as the model you associate with being "in the zone." You stop being interrupted by distracting thoughts, and your mind becomes completely absorbed in the task at hand. Flow is the enjoyable state that slides right between boredom and frustration, when a task is neither too hard nor too easy. (pg. 78)​​

  • Transfer has been called the "Holy Grail of education." It happens when you learn something in one context and are able to use it in another context. Transfer really embodies something we expect of almost all learning efforts - that we'll be able to use something we study in one situation and apply it to a new situation. Anything less than this is hard to describe as learning at all. (pg. 94)

  • To many, the idea of drilling may seem to be a push in the wrong direction. We've all spent time doing homework designed to drill into us facts and procedures that turned out to be a total waste of time. That was often because we didn't know the reasons behind what we were practicing or how it fit into a broader context. Drilling problems without context is mind-numbing. However, once you've identified that it's the bottleneck preventing you from going further, they become instilled with new purpose. (pg. 117)

  • Imagine you're a student preparing for an exam. You have three choices for how you can allocate your limited studying time: 1) You can look over your notes and review the material, 2) You can test yourself by closing the book and remembering what was in it, and 3) You can create a concept map. Option number two - testing yourself by trying to retrieve information without looking at the text - clearly outperformed all other conditions. The act of trying to summon up knowledge from memory is a powerful learning tool on its own, beyond its connection to direct practice or feedback. More difficult retrieval - such as free recall tests - leads to better learning. In summary, retrieval practice is a much better form of studying than the ones most students apply. (pg. 121)

  • A simple tactic for applying retrieval is, after reading a section from a book or sitting through a lecture, to try and write down everything you can remember on a blank piece of paper. Free recall like this is often very difficult, and there will be many things missed, even if you just finished reading. However, this difficulty is also a good reason why this practice is helpful. By forcing yourself to recall the main points and arguments, you'll be able to remember them better later. (pg. 131)

  • The ability to gain immediate feedback on one's performance is an essential ingredient in reaching expert levels of performance. No feedback, and the result is often stagnation - long periods of time when you continue to use a skill but don't get any better at it. Sometimes the lack of feedback can even result in declining abilities. (pg. 137)

  • 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. However, feedback-seeking efforts are often underused and thus remain a potent source of comparative advantage for ultralearners. Feedback is uncomfortable. It can be harsh and discouraging and it doesn't always feel nice. Fear of feedback often feels more uncomfortable than experiencing the feedback itself. As a result, it is not so much negative feedback on its own that can impede progress but the fear of hearing criticism that causes us to shut down. But once you get into the habit or receiving feedback, it becomes easier to process without overreacting emotionally. Ultralearners use this to their advantage, exposing themselves to massive amounts of feedback so that the noise can be stripped away from the signal. (pg. 138)

  • Keep in mind that not all feedback is useful. However, look out for consistency of feedback. When something you do gets must more consistent comments, you know you are on to something. This illustrates that ultralearning isn't simply about maximizing feedback but also knowing when to selectively ignore elements of it to extract the useful information. (pg. 146)

  • There are three theories to forgetting: 1) Memories simply decay with time. We remember events, news, and things learned in the past week much more clearly than things from last month. By this understanding, forgetting is simply an inevitable erosion by time. 2) Interference - our memories, unlike the files of a computer, overlap one another in how they are stored in the brain. In this way, memories that are similar but distinct can compete with one another. 3) Many memories aren't actually forgotten but are simply inaccessible. The links in the chain of retrieving the information has been severed. However, if that cue were restored, we would remember much more than is currently accessible to us. (pg. 160)

  • The more you learn about a subject, the most questions arise. The reverse also seems to be true - the fewer questions you ask - the more likely you are to know less about the subject. Some people think in the beginning that I'm kind of slow and I don't understand the problem because I ask a lot of these "dumb" questions. How many of us lack the confidence to ask "dumb" questions? If you know you are smart you should have no problem asking "dumb" questions. (pg. 190)

  • Since many of our understandings are never articulated, it's easy to think you understand something you don't. One technique bypasses this problem by forcing you to articulate the idea you want to understand in detail. Using the technique of explaining the idea as if you had to teach it to someone else will quickly reveal how much you really understand of your subject. Now any gaps in your understanding will become obvious as you struggle to explain key parts of the idea. (pg. 192)

  • When starting to learn a new skill, often it's sufficient simply to follow the example of someone who is further along than you. However, as your skill develops, It's often no longer enough to simply follow the examples of others; you need to experiment and find your own path. As your skills develop, however, not only are there fewer people who can teach you and fewer students you could have as peers, but you start to diverge from those you're learning from. (pg. 203)

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