Book Notes

“Ultralearning”, Scott Young

“Difficulty is the key”

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

Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practice creates skill.


James Clear examples of how he used UL approach: “to go from unproven entrepreneur to bestselling author.”

  • deep learning provides a sense of purpose in life.
  • deep learning is how you get outsized returns.
  • deep learning is possible.

”In many fields a year of focused work plus caring a lot would be enough”

Paul Graham

Metalearning: draw a map

  • Before you get started, it would be a good idea to talk to some successful architects to get a sense of whether they think your project will actually help with your intended goal.
  • A good way to do this is to write down on a sheet of paper three columns with the headings “Concepts,” “Facts,” and “Procedures.” Then brainstorm all the things you’ll need to learn.
  • I suggest the following two methods to answer how you’ll learn something: Benchmarking and the Emphasize/Exclude Method.
  • Metalearning research isn’t a one-time activity you do only before starting your project


“Now I will have less distraction.”

Leonhard Euler, mathematician, upon losing the sight in his right eye

Problems with focus:

  • failing to start focusing (procrastination)
  • failing to sustain focus (getting distracted)
  • failing to create the right kind of focus

Directness: learning by doing

Story of Jaiswal (self-taught architect): started working at a print store, which gave him daily exposure to the blueprints firms were using. Learning software through tutorials at night. Created only one project for his portfolio. New portfolio in hand, Jaiswal submitted it again, this time to just two architecture firms. To his surprise, they both immediately offered him a job.

  • We want to speak a language but try to learn mostly by playing on fun apps, rather than conversing with actual people.
  • 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.
  • The opposite of this is the approach so often favored in more traditional classroom-style learning: studying facts, concepts, and skills in a way that is removed from how those things will eventually be applied: mastering formulas before you understand the problem they’re trying to solve; memorizing the vocabulary of a language…
  • During the MIT Challenge, I recognized that the most important resource for being able to eventually pass the classes wasn’t having access to recorded lectures, it was having access to problem sets.
  • Directness solves the problem of transfer in two ways. The first and most obvious is that if you learn with a direct connection to the area in which you eventually want to apply the skill.
  • Learning directly is hard. It is often more frustrating, challenging, and intense than reading a book or sitting through a lecture. But this very difficulty creates a potent source of competitive advantage for any would-be ultralearner.

Drill: attack the weakest point

Benjamin Franklin documents was taking a favorite magazine of his, The Spectator, and taking notes on articles that appeared there. He would then leave the notes for a few days and come back to them, trying to reconstruct the original argument from memory. After finishing, he “compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.” Realizing that his vocabulary was limited, he developed another strategy

  • The Socratic method, of challenging another’s ideas through probing questions rather than direct contradiction.
  • 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
  • Drills resolve this problem by simplifying a skill enough that you can focus your cognitive resources on a single aspect.

Direct-Then-Drill Approach.

  • The first step is to try to practice the skill directly.
  • 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.
  • The final step is to go back to direct practice and integrate what you’ve learned.

How to design a drill

you approach mastery, your time may end up focused mostly on drills as your knowledge of how the complex skill breaks down into individual components becomes more refined and accurate and improving any individual component gets harder and harder.

  • 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: Sometimes what you’ll want to practice isn’t a slice in time of a larger skill but a particular cognitive component.
  • 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”

Retrieval: test to learn

  • Retrieval practice—trying to recall facts and concepts from memory—is so much better for learning.
  • Retrieval practice beats passive review by a mile. What helped in the immediate time after studying turns out not to create the long-term memory needed for actual learning to take place.
  • The research is clear: if you need to recall something later, you’re best off practicing retrieving it

Difficulty can become undesirable if it gets so hard that retrieval becomes impossible. Far enough away to make whatever is retrieved remembered deeply, not so far away that you’ve forgotten everything.

Retrieval Tactics

  • 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. After I had finished reading, I’d do a quick free recall exercise to make sure I would retain the important details when it came time for writing.
  • Tactic 3: The Question-Book Method: another strategy for taking notes is to rephrase what you’ve recorded as questions to be answered later. Instead of writing that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, you could instead write the question “When was the Magna Carta signed?”
  • Tactic 4: Self-Generated Challenges: as you go through your passive material, you can create challenges for yourself to solve later. You may encounter a new technique and then write a note to demonstrate that technique in an actual example.
  • Tactic 5: Closed-Book Learning: By preventing yourself from consulting the source, the information becomes knowledge stored inside your head instead of inside a reference manual.

Feedback: don’t dodge the punches

Ultralearners acquire skills quickly because they seek aggressive feedback when others opt for practice that includes weaker forms of feedback or no feedback at all.

Types of Feedback

  • Outcome Feedback: Are You Doing It Wrong?
  • Informational Feedback: What Are You Doing Wrong? This feedback tells you what you’re doing wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you how to fix it. Because this kind of feedback often comes from direct interaction with the environment, it often pairs well with the third principle, directness.
  • Corrective Feedback: How Can You Fix What You’re Doing Wrong? This is the feedback that shows you not only what you’re doing wrong but how to fix it.

Feedback too soon may turn your retrieval practice effectively into passive review, which we already know is less effective for learning.

Improve Your Feedback

  • Tactic 1: Noise Cancellation: Noise is caused by random factors, which you shouldn’t overreact to when trying to improve.
  • Tactic 2: Hitting the Difficulty Sweet Spot: 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. You should try to avoid situations that always make you feel good (or bad) about your performance.
  • Tactic 3: Metafeedback. This kind of feedback isn’t about your performance but about evaluating the overall success of the strategy you’re using to learn. One important type of metafeedback is your learning rate.
  • Tactic 4: High-Intensity, Rapid Feedback. De Montebello’s strategy of improving public speaking relied largely on getting far more frequent exposure to the stage than most speakers do.

Retention: don’t fill a leaky bucket

Active recall and rehearsal systems seemed to work according to one of four mechanisms: spacing, proceduralization, overlearning, or mnemonics.

  • Spacing: Repeat to remember
  • Proceduralization: Automatic Will Endure. Why do people say it’s “like riding a bicycle” and not “like remembering trigonometry?”
    • Perfect example of this declarative-to-procedural transition is typewriting. When you start typing on a keyboard, you m
    • additional practice, beyond what is required to perform adequately, can increase the length of time that memories are stored.
  • Overlearning: 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. One study of algebra students demonstrated this second strateg
  • Mnemonics: A Picture Retains a Thousand Words

Intuition: dig deep before building up

  • when somebody is explaining something that I’m trying to understand: I keep making up examples.” Instead of trying to follow an equation, he would try to imagine the situation it described.

A famous study, advanced PhDs and undergraduate physics students were given sets of physics problems and asked to sort them into categories.5 Immediately, a stark difference became apparent. 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. “Ah, so it’s a conservation of energy problem,”

Between grand masters and novices is not that grand masters can compute many more moves ahead but that they have built up huge libraries of mental representations that come from playing actual games. Researchers have estimated that having around

He, too, focused on principles first, building off examples that cut straight to the heart of what the problem represented rather than focusing on superficial features.

How to Build Your Intuition

  • 1: Don’t Give Up on Hard Problems Easily
  • 2: Prove Things to Understand Them: the process of mentally trying to re-create those results that he became so good at physics. This could be a disa
  • 3: Always Start with a Concrete Example. As the research on transfer demonstrates, most people learn abstract, general rules only after being exposed to many concrete examples.
  • 4: Don’t Fool Yourself: Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when someone with an inadequate understanding of a subject nonetheless believes he or she possesses more knowledge about the subject than the people who actually do. One way to avoid this problem of fooling yourself is simply to ask lots of questions.
The Feynman Technique
  1. Write down the concept or problem you want to understand at the top of a piece of paper.
  2. In the space below, explain the idea as if you had to teach it to someone else.
    A. If it’s a concept, ask yourself how you would convey the idea to someone who has never heard of it before.
    B. If it’s a problem, explain how to solve it and—crucially—why that solution procedure makes sense to you.
  3. When you get stuck, meaning your understanding fails to provide a clear answer, go back to your book, notes, teacher, or reference material to find the answer.

Application 1: For Things You Don’t Understand at All

Application 2: For Problems You Can’t Seem to Solve

Application 3: For Expanding Your Intuition

In this application of the method, instead of focusing on explaining every detail or going along with the source material, you should try to focus on generating illustrative examples, analogies, or visualizations that would make the idea comprehensible to someone who has learned far less than you have. Imagine that instead of trying to teach the idea

Experimentation: explore outside your comfort zone

Results? Why, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.
—Thomas Edison

  • Over accumulation, experimentation becomes synonymous with learning as you force yourself to go outside your comfort zone and try new things.
  • Experimentation, as you approach mastery, is that many skills reward not only proficiency.

Three Types of Experimentation

  1. Experimenting with Learning Resources
  2. Experimenting with Technique: Pick some subtopic within the skill you’re trying to cultivate, spend some time learning it aggressively, and then evaluate your progress. Should you continue in that direction or pick another… There’s no “right” answer here, but there are answers that will be more useful to the specific skill you’re trying to master.
  3. Experimenting with Style: Once you master the basics, there is no longer one “right” way to do everything but many different possibilities, all of which have different strengths and weaknesses.
    1. Similarly, you might want to identify masters in your own line of study and dissect what makes their styles successful to see what you can emulate or integrate into your own approach.

A fixed mindset, learners believe that their traits are fixed or innate and thus there’s no point in trying to improve them. In a growth mindset, in contrast, learners see their own capacity for learning as something that can be actively improved

How to Experiment

  • Tactic 1: Copy, Then Create: if you start by emulating another artist, you can use that foothold to venture further in your own creative direction. This strategy has another advantage beyond simplifying the choices available to you
  • Tactic 2: Compare Methods 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. Forcing yourself to try different approaches encourages experimentation outside your comfort zone.
  • Tactic 3: Introduce new constraints: a powerful technique for pushing out of those grooves of routine is by introducing new constraints that make the old methods impossible to use.
  • Tactic 4: Find Your Superpower in the Hybrid of Unrelated Skills. You might be an engineer who becomes really good at public speaking.
    • You may not be the best possible engineer or the best possible presenter, but combining those two skills could make you the best person to present on engineering topics for your company at conferences, thus giving you access to new professional opportunities.
    • Such synergies become possible once you start exploring how one skill you’ve already acquired can impact another.
  • Tactic 5: Explore the Extremes. Sticking to the middle and playing it safe isn’t the correct approach because that allows you to explore only a small subset of the total possibilities for your work.
    • Pushing out to an extreme in some aspect of the skill you’re cultivating, even if you eventually decide to pull it back to something more moderate, is often a good exploration strategy.
    • This allows you to search the space of possibilities more effectively, while also giving you a broader range of experience

Experimentation is the principle that ties all the others together. Not only does it make you try new things and think hard about how to solve specific learning challenges

Your First UL Project

  • Step 1: Do Your Research: Your ultralearning “packing” checklist should include, at a minimum:
    • What topic you’re going to learn and its approximate scope.
    • The primary resources you’re going to use. This
    • A benchmark for how others have successfully learned this skill or subject.
    • Direct practice activities. Every skill and subject you’re learning will be used somewhere eventually, even if it’s as simple as using it to learn something else
    • Backup materials and drills.
  • Step 2: Schedule Your Time: The first is that this way you subconsciously prioritize your project by setting it down on your calendar ahead of other things. The second is that learning is often frustrating and it is almost always easier to click over to Facebook, Twitter, or Netflix.
    • The first decision you should make is how much time you’re going to commit
    • The second decision you need to make is when you are going to learn.
    • The third decision you need to make is the length of time for your project. I generally prefer shorter commitments to longer ones because they are easier to stick with. An intensive project that lasts a month has fewer potential interruptions from life or from your motivation changing and waning
    • Bonus: on longer projects of six months or more, I strongly recommend doing a pilot week of your schedule
  • Step 3: Execute Your Plan. Whatever plan you started with, now is the time to do it. No plan is perfect, and you may realize that what you’re doing for learning departs from the ideal, as established by the ultralearning principles.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine whether you’re slipping from the ideal:

  • Metalearning. Have I done research into what are the typical ways of learning this subject or skill. Have I spent about 10 percent of the total time on preparing my project?
  • Focus. Am I focused when I spend time learning, or am I multitasking and distracted
  • Directness. Am I learning the skill in the way I’ll eventually be using it?
  • Drill. Am I spending time focusing on the weakest points of my performance?
  • Retrieval. Am I spending most of my time reading and reviewing, or am I solving problems and recalling things from memory without looking at my notes?
  • Feedback. Am I getting honest feedback about my performance early on, o
  • Retention. Do I have a plan in place to remember what I’m learning long term?
  • Intuition. Do I deeply understand the things I’m learning, or am I just memorizing?
  • Experimentation. Am I getting stuck with my current resources and techniques?
  • Step 4: Review Your Results: What went right? What went wrong? What should you do next time to avoid making those same mistakes?
  • Step 5: Choose to Maintain or Master What You’ve Learned:
    • Maintain: The first option is to invest enough practice to sustain the skill but without any concrete goal of getting it to a new level. Or try to integrate the skill into your life.
    • Option 2: Relearning. Many skills the costs of relearning the skill later are smaller than the costs of keeping it continuously sharp. Relearning is generally easier than first-time learning. This may be the optimal strategy for subjects that you need to use infrequently and for which situations for using them won’t pop up without warning
    • Option 3: Mastery. The third option, of course, is to dive deeper into the skill you have learned. This can be done through continued practice at a lighter pace or by following up with another ultralearning project

Alternatives to UL

Alternative Strategy 1: Low-Intensity Habits

  • Low-intensity habits work well when engaging in learning is spontaneous, your frustration
  • Habits tend to work best when the act of learning is mostly a process of accumulation, adding new skills and knowledge.

Alternative Strategy 2: Formal, Structured Education

Fostering Ultralearning in the Home, School, and Workplace

  • Suggestion 1: Create an Inspiring Goal: Better yet, allow people to design their own learning goals that inspire them. Inspiration is an essential starting point in the process of ultralearning.
  • Suggestion 2: Be Careful with Competition: However, you need to feel that you could be good at it. People tend to make their perceptions of inadequacy into immutable destinies: “I’m no good at math,” “I can’t draw anything but stick figures,”
  • Suggestion 3: Make Learning a Priority