Ultralearning

Thinking back to your high school chemistry class, how much do you really remember? The way we are taught information and skills, and the way we learn and absorb knowledge are vastly different. Even when we get to choose the subject and it is something we are genuinely interested in learning, we find that the information has slipped from our memories.

Author Scott Young wanted to be an entrepreneur, so he studied business in college. After graduating, he realized he actually needed a degree in computer science to accomplish what he wanted. But he didn’t have the time or money to get another degree. He stumbled on a class taught at MIT posted online that included lectures, assignments, quizzes and exams—complete with the answer keys. He explored what else he could find online, and pieced together the curriculum required for a degree in computer science at MIT. After months of figuring out how the courses built upon each other, he set a goal to master the material, demonstrated by being able to pass all the exams within one year. He did it.

Empowered by his accomplishment, he embarked on many more intensive learning projects, including learning four languages in a year. He interviewed many people who have successfully pulled off their own ultralearning project and has asked people to create their own projects, so he could observe the process and distill what’s essential to succeed. Many stories are included in the book, giving inspiration and insight for developing your own ultralearning project.

Young’s Ultralearning book, published in 2019, breaks down the steps to master material through self-directed strategies. The book shows that the self-motivated mastery of information is really the only way to deeply learn anything, while exploring ways to overcome our shortcomings, such as a lack of focus or poor study techniques.

The first step is to plan. Simply identifying what you want to learn will not keep you motivated during hard times. You must care deeply enough to commit the time it will take to learn. You don’t need to commit an intense year, like Young did. You could instead commit to an hour a week or whatever works for your life, but it will take commitment.

The next step is developing the how. Young suggests spending 10 percent of your total expected learning time researching and developing a plan before you start.

Essential components for pulling off your ultralearning project include: focus, directness, drilling, retrieval, feedback, retention, intuition and experimentation. Here, I discuss directness and feedback.

Directness
In order to learn something, you have to do that thing. You need to learn directly. Typically, when we want to learn something, we find a book and read about the subject. We may even talk about it. Or we may go so far as to find a class and listen to a teacher explain the subject. But until we do it, we won’t be able to actually do it. Why don’t we learn directly more often? Because it is hard. It is much easier to read about the subject than to actually do it. Learning directly can be frustrating, challenging and intense.

Learning-directly methods include:

  1. Project-based learning method: Learn how to produce or do the skill.
  2. Immersive learning method: Surround yourself with the target environment (like a language), or join a community, such as open source programming.
  3. Flight simulator method: Manufacture a safe environment to practice—skype to practice using the language, for instance.
  4. Overkill method: Put yourself in an environment where the demands are extremely high, so you won’t miss important lessons or feedback, such as taking language proficiency exams.

The genius of direct learning is transferring knowledge from one skill set to the next. We learn in one context and fail to apply it in another context. Learning from a real setting instead of a class environment forces us to apply the knowledge and to develop strategies that will be useful.

Feedback
Getting immediate feedback on your performance is essential to reach an expert level of performance. Yet, we flinch from getting (or giving) useful feedback. Without feedback, you will stagnate, meaning you will continue to use your skills but not get better.

The type of feedback you receive is critical. You need input that will propel you to get better. Praise and positive feedback rarely contain useful information for improving. Interestingly, the more feedback you get, the less emotional you will be about it. Consider an athlete getting feedback from a coach, which is not normally received emotionally or perceived as a threat. It is instead just useful information on how to improve. Evaluations motivate you to do your best, so seek out opportunities to be assessed.

Consider how to garner feedback on how effectively you are learning and reevaluate your strategy for your achieving your learning objective. Is your strategy too hard? Too easy? Are you making progress?

To learn deep and truly master a subject takes intentionality and mindfulness. Young has outlined the components necessary for deep learning. The hardest step may be deciding what it is you want to learn.