Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career
Thoroughly researched strategies and tactics to ramp up skill acquisition.
Scott Young

Ultralearning – What Is It, and Why Does It Matter?

Ultralearning: A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.

Self-directed does not mean self-taught. It’s possible to still decide that attending a particular school is the best way to learn something.

Acquiring skills gives you massive leverage. Because of increased computerization, automation, and outsourcing, we are increasingly living in a world in which the top performers do a lot better than the rest.

Formal education is broken. Many of the best schools fail to teach the core vocational skills needed to succeed in the new high-skilled jobs.

There are three main ways you can engage in ultralearning: new part-time projects, learning sabbaticals, and reimagining existing learning efforts.

The core of the ultralearning strategy is intensity and a willingness to prioritize effectiveness.

Principle 1 – Metalearning (Draw a Map)

Rather than learning the subject itself, metalearning is learning how knowledge is structured and acquired within this subject – aka learning how to learn it.

Knowing a second language helps you learn a third – you have more knowledge about how language acquisition works.

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

It’s often a good idea to do some initial research: ask whether learning the skill or topic in question will actually help you achieve your goal. The best way to do this is to talk to experts.

Figure out how knowledge in your subject is structured. Write down three columns with the headings “Concepts,” “Facts,” and “Procedures.”

  • Concepts – ideas that you need to understand in flexible ways.
  • Facts it's enough to just remember them.
  • Procedures – automatic actions that need to be performed.

Find a curriculum and make modifications to it. This is easiest with skills that have obvious success criteria (say drawing, languages, or music).

A good rule of thumb is that you should invest approximately 10 percent of your total expected learning time into research prior to starting.

The return to research tends to be lumpy and variable. You might spend a few hours and get nothing, then stumble onto the perfect resource for accelerating your progress.

Principle 2 – Focus

Be curious about your tendency to procrastinate. Is the problem more that you have a strong urge to do a different activity (e.g., eat something, check your phone, take a nap) or that you have a strong urge to avoid the thing you should be doing because it will be uncomfortable, painful, or frustrating?

Five minute rule: Tell yourself that you need to spend only five minutes on the task before you can stop and do something else.

If you're not suffering from extreme procrastination, use a calendar and carve out specific hours of your day to focus on the project. If you find yourself frequently ignoring your schedule, try building back up again with the five-minute rule and the Pomodoro Technique.

Don’t worry about getting into flow. In some learning tasks, you’ll achieve it easily, in some you won't.

If you have several hours to study, you’re possibly better off covering a few topics rather than focusing exclusively on one.

Multitasking may feel like fun, but it’s unsuitable for ultralearning, which requires concentrating your full mind on the task at hand.

Many people tell themselves that they focus better while listening to music. The reality might be that they don’t want to work on a given task, so music provides a low-level, amusing distraction.

If you have difficult reading to do, jot down notes that reexplain hard concepts. More intense strategies are harder to do in the background of your mind, so there are fewer opportunities for distraction.

More complex tasks, such as solving math problems or writing essays, tend to benefit from a more relaxed kind of focus. Here the space of focus is often larger and more diffuse.

In one study, sleepy subjects did better when a loud noise was played in the background, while the well-rested subjects did worse. The noise increased arousal levels, which benefited the low-arousal sleepy subjects, but it increased arousal too much for the well-rested ones.

Principle 3 – Directness

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

E.g., if you're learning a language, it's better to practice with actual people rather than use an app like Duolingo.

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.

Note: Reminds me of studying for the GMAT - performance skyrocketed when I switched to simulating real exam scenarios

The easiest way to learn directly is to simply spend a lot of time doing the thing you want to become good at.

The simplest way to be direct is to learn by doing. Whenever possible, if you can spend a good portion of your learning time just doing the thing you want to get better at, the problem of directness will likely go away.

Many ultralearners opt for projects rather than classes to learn the skills they need.

Learning methods that simulate the direct approach will transfer a lot better. If you’re trying to learn French, you’ll get more doing Skype tutoring than you will from flipping through flash cards.

Principle 4 – Drill (Attack Your Weak Points)

By identifying a rate-determining step in your learning reaction, you can isolate it and work on it specifically. Since it governs the overall competence you have with that skill, by improving at it you will improve faster than if you try to practice every aspect of the skill at once.

A good example is learning vocabulary. If you were able to suddenly inject hundreds of new words into your mental database, you might drastically expand your fluency even if your pronunciation, grammar, or other linguistic knowledge remains unchanged.

The earlier you are in the learning process, the faster you should cycle between drills and direct practice. Cycling even works within the same learning session – this is a good idea when you’re just starting out.

Principle 5 – Retrieval (Test to Learn)

In one study, students who practiced free recall remembered almost 50 percent more than either reviewing materials or concept mapping – even though these same students predicted they would do the worst.

We assess our own learning based in part on how fluently we can process something. If the learning task feels easy and smooth, we are more likely to believe we’ve learned it. If the task feels like a struggle, we’ll feel we haven’t learned it yet. However, this can lead to illusions of learning.

Whether you are ready or not, retrieval practice works better. Especially if you combine retrieval with the ability to look up the answers, retrieval practice is a much better form of studying than the ones most students apply.

Free recall tests, in which students need to recall as much as they can remember without prompting, tend to result in better retention than cued recall tests, in which students are given hints about what they need to remember.

Giving someone a test immediately after they learn something improves retention less than giving them a slight delay... however, if you delay the test too long, the information may be forgotten entirely. You need to find the right midpoint.

An analogy here is that trying to retrieve an answer that doesn’t yet exist in your mind is like laying down a road leading to a building that hasn’t been constructed yet.

Flash cards work really well for a specific type of retrieval—when there’s a pairing between a specific cue and a particular response.

A simple tactic for applying retrieval is, 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.

Try restating the big idea of a chapter or section as a question. This requires some deeper thinking and not just adding a question mark to some notes you copied verbatim.

Concept mapping can be beefed up considerably by preventing yourself from looking at the book when generating your concept map.

Principle 6 – Get Feedback

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 is usually harmful to further learning.

Overly negative feedback lower your motivation, but so can overly positive feedback. Ultralearners must balance both concerns, pushing for the right level of feedback for their current stage of learning.

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.

The best kind of feedback to get is corrective feedback. This is the feedback that shows you not only what you’re doing wrong but how to fix it. This kind of feedback is often available only through a coach, mentor, or teacher. However, sometimes it can be provided automatically if you are using the right study materials.

Sometimes the added edge of having feedback from a coach, mentor or expert can be worth the effort needed to find such people.

Corrective feedback requires a “correct” answer or the response of a recognized expert. If there is no expert or a single correct approach, trying to turn informational feedback into corrective feedback can work against you when the wrong change is suggested as an improvement.

The research is mixed, but it's generally best to get faster feedback. This enables a quicker recognition of mistakes. However, don't let fast feedback turn retrieval practice into passive. For hard problems, set yourself a timer to work on difficult problems before looking for the correct answer.

Ultralearners carefully adjust their environment so that they’re not able to predict whether they’ll succeed or fail. If they fail too often, they simplify the problem so they can start noticing when they’re doing things right. If they fail too little, they’ll make the task harder or their standards stricter so that they can distinguish the success of different approaches.

Though short-term feedback can be stressful, once you get into the habit of receiving it, it becomes easier to process without overreacting emotionally.

Principle 7 – Retention (Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket)

Forgetting is more than simply decay – there are other factors at play.

Anyone who has learned Spanish and later tried to learn French knows how tricky interference can be.

Forgetting cues is a major factor in forgetting many things.

If you have ten hours to learn something, therefore, it makes more sense to spend ten days studying one hour each than to spend ten hours studying in one burst.

Procedural skills, e.g. riding a bike, are much less susceptible to being forgotten than knowledge that requires explicit recall to retrieve.

Overlearning is a well-studied psychological phenomenon that’s fairly easy to understand: additional practice, beyond what is required to perform adequately, can increase the length of time that memories are stored.

Some people who rely too much on formal language learning may trip over fairly basic phrases, because they learned every fact and skill evenly, rather than overlearning the smaller subset of very common patterns.

The application of Mnemonics are quite a bit narrower than they first appear, and in many real-world settings they simply aren’t worth the hassle.

Principle 8 – Intuition (Dig Deep)

“I had a scheme, which I still use today when somebody is explaining something that I’m trying to understand: I keep making up examples.”
- Richard Feynman

Beginners tend to look at superficial features of problems. Experts focus on the deeper principles at work.

One way you can introduce this into your own efforts is to give yourself a “struggle timer” as you work on problems. When you feel like giving up and that you can’t possibly figure out the solution to a difficult problem, try setting a timer for another ten minutes to push yourself a bit further.

The illusion of understanding is very often the barrier to deeper knowledge. Unless that competency is actually tested, it’s easy to mislead yourself into thinking you understand more than you do.

For example, most people have no idea how everyday machines like bicycles are assembled, even though they believed they understood them quite well.

“Don’t fool yourself” was one of Feynman’s most popular aphorisms, to which he added, “and you’re the easiest person to fool.” He was deeply skeptical of his own understanding.

Feynman's notion of understanding was much deeper and more based on demonstrating results himself, rather than merely nodding along while reading.

Explaining things clearly and asking “dumb” questions can keep you from fooling yourself into thinking you know something you don’t.

The Feynman Technique forces you to articulate the idea you want to understand in detail. Just as drawing a bicycle quickly confirms whether you have a basic grasp of how it is put together. This  quickly reveals how much you really understand of your subject.

Imagine that instead of trying to teach the idea, you are being paid to write a magazine article explaining the idea. What visual intuitions would you use to pin down the abstractions? Which examples would flesh out a general principle?

Principle 9 – Experimentation

As your skills develop, there fewer people who can teach you and fewer students you could have as peers (thus lowering the total market for books, classes, and instructors). You need to experiment on your own.

The difference between a novice programmer and a master isn’t usually that the novice cannot solve certain problems. Rather, it’s that the master knows the best way to solve a problem, which will be the most efficient and clean and cause the fewest headaches later on.

The experimental mindset is an extension of the growth mindset: whereas the former encourages you to see opportunities and potential for improvement, the latter enacts a plan to reach those improvements.

Copying simplifies the problem of experimentation somewhat because it gives you a starting point for making decisions. If you’re learning to paint, the possibilities of what kinds of art you can create and techniques you can apply are so vast that it can be difficult or impossible to decide among them.

By applying two different approaches side by side, you can often quickly get information not only about what works best but about which methods are better suited to your personal style.

An interesting result from mathematics is that as you get to higher and higher dimensions, most of the volume of a higher-dimensional sphere lies near its surface. What this means is that the more complicated a domain of skill is (i.e., the more dimensions it contains), the more space will be taken up by applications of that skill that are extreme across at least one of those dimensions.

Your First Ultralearning Project

Start with rather a narrow scope. “Learning enough Mandarin Chinese to hold a fifteen-minute conversation on simple topics” is a lot more constrained than “Learn Chinese”.

Identify things other people who have learned the skill have done to learn it.

Set a consistent schedule, rather than trying to fit in learning when you can. Consistency breeds good habits.

If you have absolutely no choice, an ad hoc schedule is better than none, but it will require more discipline to sustain.

The best way to find out what is best for you is to practice; if you find it takes a long time to warm up, opt for longer spaces in your schedule. If you find you can get to work within a few minutes of starting, shorter chunks of time spread out will be helpful for long-term retention.

Shorter commitments are better than long ones because they are easier to stick with.

If you’re unwilling to put time into your calendar, you’re almost certainly unwilling to put in time to study. If you’re waffling at this stage, that’s a good sign your heart isn’t really in the right place to get started.

If a person in whom you want to encourage has a natural aptitude, competition can work. For everyone else, encourage the person to frame his or her progress by comparing to his or her past self, not due to competition with others.

Sometimes a project can start out being unique, thus sheltered from the harsh light of unfavorable comparison, and move to a more competitive environment once confidence has been established.

© 2023 Mike Fiorillo
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