Today on the show we feature Scott Young, author of Wall Street Journal best-selling book Ultralearning.
Scott finished a 4-year MIT computer science curriculum in one year, learned how to speak four languages fluently in one year, and learned how to draw portraits in 30 days. Scott is also a writer, programmer, traveler, and avid reader who, for the last ten years, has explored the question: what’s the best way to learn? Ultralearning answers that question.
In today’s episode, we chat about the nine principles of Ultralearning, which can help you learn new skills, reinvent yourself, stay relevant, and adapt to whatever life throws at you. If you think you know the best way to learn something…think again. This book will challenge your assumptions.
Whether you want to develop hard skills to become more valuable at your job, soft skills for your journey to self-improvement, or you want to honor your love for learning, these nine principles will help you become more effective at developing new skills.
Ultralearning is a powerful tool you can use to overcome feeling stuck and get past procrastination, distraction, and generally being unable to focus.
Let’s look at the nine principles that govern ultralearning that Scott mentions in the episode.
Metalearning is the approach of – before you start a project where you’re trying to get good at something, you spend some time doing research to figure out what is the strategy for getting good at it.
Metalearning can be effective for figuring out where to start, especially when starting seems overwhelming.
Scott recommends scouring the internet for case studies. Find out what works and what doesn’t work. Get recommendations on the best resources, books, and strategies. Interview successful people and ask them to walk through their career path so you can see where they started from and how they got to where they are today.
The idea of directness is very simply that when we learn things, they tend to be quite specific. Not only in terms of what we learn, but also in terms of the context in which we activate and use that knowledge.
A good example of directness is learning material in school. Academically, you might know the material, but that’s your limit. You typically don’t know how to apply that knowledge to real life. You’re unable to transfer that academic knowledge to practical use.
Instead of seeking to learn new things for the sake of learning, be an active learner by asking yourself, “How do I want to use this material? In what kind of situation will I use this knowledge?”
You should seek to build deep, conceptual understandings of topics. You can do this by using a technique called the Feynman technique. Here’s how to use it:
If you’re learning something that’s concept-based, try writing your definition or your working knowledge of that concept down. If you don’t struggle – awesome, you know the material at a deep level. But if you do struggle (and most of us will), then this tells you where your understanding breaks down.
You might find that you’re unfamiliar with only one part of the concept – not the entire thing – so you can then research that one particular sub-concept to deepen your understanding of the broader concept.
You can also use this technique with someone else. Explain the concept to them, and notice where your explanation starts to sound like, well…nonsense. That’s where the gap in your understanding is. This makes it easier to lessen that gap.
At its basic level, retrieval is what most of us did (or do) to learn academic material. We look at a book, or at our notes, and read it over and over and over again, until we think we have it. As it turns out, this isn’t an effective way to learn.
Instead, you should actively read something, and then put it down and attempt to recall what you just read. Only when you get stuck on something should you look back at the text.
The same goes for giving a speech. Most people practice by reading cue cards, but what you should do is attempt to give your speech without those cards, and only look at them when you forget a part.
The idea behind drill is – once you’ve done some direct practice, if you figure out what you’re weak at, or figure out what … area you could improve on, you isolate it and you do some practice in isolation on that component. It gives you more attention span to focus on that component to actually get better at it.
Skills have a lot of different components to them, so you may find that you need to focus on developing some sub-skills in an effort to get better at the overall skill you’re trying to develop. Drills help you improve at those sub-skills.
For example, if you want to learn a new language, you need to master several things: pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, etc. Maybe your vocabulary and grammar are great, but your pronunciation isn’t. Design a drill where you can improve on your pronunciation. Maybe you have a native speaker listen to you and tell you where you can improve, and how to improve.
Receiving feedback allows you to monitor and track your progress, but the wrong kind of feedback can have disastrous results.
…it’s very important what kind of feedback you get, and it’s also important to filter the feedback you’re getting and not just respond to every little piece of feedback that you’re getting.
This can be difficult, especially if you’re in a group environment or putting your progress out to the world on social media. Recognizing that valuable feedback comes at the level of task can help, and so can knowing when someone is giving you feedback based on your personality or based on your actual skill.
Multitasking isn’t effective. If you want to be an effective learner, you need to focus. Scott cites three problems he often sees with focus:
- Failing to start: you want to learn, but you don’t start. This is better known as procrastination, and it’s usually an emotional reaction based on fear or overwhelm. The best solution to this is to chunk your tasks down to smaller bites.
- Distraction: there are external distractions and internal distractions that we all have to battle with. The best way to avoid distractions is to change our environment.
- Type of focus: when we think of focus, most of us think of laser-sharp focus. Diffused focus can actually be more effective for creative problem solving, though.
Overall, it can help to realize that the urge to stop focusing is temporary, and we can often overcome these urges by creating little rules to keep ourselves going. More on that in the episode!
Remembering everything we learned in school is difficult, let alone remembering what we ate for lunch yesterday. Combating forgetting is central to improving our ability to learn and, you know, retain what we’ve learned.
Scott has two strategies that can help.
The first is called spacing, and this is when someone has multiple exposures to the same idea over a period of time. This is much more effective than someone having multiple exposures to the same idea in one sitting (aka: cramming for an exam).
The second is covering information five times between when you first learn it and when you need to know it by. So if you were taking an exam in a few weeks, you should review the exam material five times in between knowing about it and taking it.
When looking at this list of principles, it might be easy to think, “Okay, so I can take these all step-by-step and improve my learning abilities, woohoo!!” but that would be a mistake.
These principles aren’t a recipe for learning. They’re context-specific tools that you can use depending on what and how you’re trying to learn.
What I recommend in this situation is you have to have this experimental mindset where you’re plotting a course into the unknown and you have to decide – well, okay, maybe I should get better at this aspect of this skill, and then you work on that for a little while and then you work on something else.
The biggest takeaway from this episode is that learning is a fundamental process to our lives because we spend so much of our time learning. We’re learning even when we’re not consciously aware of it. So taking the information from these nine principles and applying it to different areas of our lives can be extremely valuable.
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