Ultralearning book review

My Top 5 Takeaways from Ultralearning by Scott Young

“Can you recommend a book for…?”

“What are you reading right now?”

“What are your favorite books?”

I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.

I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.

On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.

So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.

The idea here is simple: Every month, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.

I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.

If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!

Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.

Okay, let’s get to the featured book: Ultralearning by Scott Young.


Ultralearning book review


I’ve always been a decent student and learner and have already studied quite a bit about how to learn, so I was familiar with a lot of what’s taught in this book, but I appreciated the effort and learned some new tips and tools for developing understanding and competence faster.

If you’re like me, Ultralearning has some bennies to offer, but don’t set your expectations too high. If you’re new to learning how to learn, however, you’ll likely find this book extremely helpful.

A caveat, however: it contains quite a few moving parts and isn’t meant to be just read but used, so expect to come back to it regularly as you wind your way through learning projects. 

In fact, you’ll probably find the book most enjoyable if you have a project to apply it to from the beginning. Otherwise, you may start to feel overwhelmed by all the instructions and options as you try to remember the ins and outs and envision the sequences discussed in the book. (Think reading board game instructions without much in the way of pictures or other forms of tangible demonstration.)

Let’s get to the takeaways.

My 5 Key Takeaways from Ultralearning by Scott Young

1

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

My Note

People often ask me for tips on how to be a better writer and marketer, and I have several, but the first is this: Do a lot of it. Don’t just think or learn about it—do it consistently. Like every day for at least an hour or two. For a long time. And if you can’t do that, don’t expect to get very far.

This applies to any activity. We humans don’t learn well in the abstract—we must be exposed to many concrete examples and experience many things firsthand, and that requires interacting with the actual contexts we want to operate in. 

The more specific here, the better, too—we want to learn and practice skills as closely to the way we want to use them as possible.

When learning, then, we must ensure we spend a fair amount of time doing the thing we want to get better at, even if that requires creating an artificial (simulatory) project or environment to practice and work in. This ensures we learn how to produce the result we’re after, not merely take notes and memorize information.

2

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.

My Note

Without honest feedback about our performance and progress, it’s impossible to know what we’re learning well and what we’re not and if we’re even learning the right things. 

Feedback is a crucial aspect of learning, and generally, the faster you can get it and the more open you are to it, the faster you’ll advance in the activity. Similarly, if you avoid feedback out of fear or egotism, you’ll struggle to improve and eventually stagnate.

In the book, Young talks about three types of useful feedback:

1. Outcome feedback

This is feedback in the form of results that tell you how well you’re doing overall but not what you’re doing better or worse. If you’re learning tennis, for example, and know that you can successfully deliver 6 out of 10 serves on average, this would be outcome feedback.

2. Informational feedback

This is feedback in the form of information about what you’re doing right and wrong, but it doesn’t tell you how to fix it. Continuing with the tennis example, if you’re videoing yourself while practicing your serves and notice a flaw in your form (but don’t know how to fix it), this would be informational feedback.

3. Corrective feedback

This is feedback in the form of information about what you’re doing right and wrong plus what to do to improve strengths and fix weaknesses. If you showed your practice footage to a coach, and he showed you how to improve your technique for better serves, this would be corrective feedback.

Just as you’d never try to navigate the high seas without instruments for knowing where you are and where you’re headed, before embarking on a learning project, you must ensure you have mechanisms in place for getting immediate, specific, and accurate feedback on your results (outcome feedback) as well as your processes (informational and corrective feedback).

3

Careful experimentation not only brings out your best potential, it also eliminates bad habits and superstitions by putting them to the test of real-world results.

My Note

Experimentation is a pillar of effective learning, and it involves using feedback to identify obstacles and challenges, thinking about how to overcome them, and trying new things (especially those outside your comfort zone). It also encourages you to discard ideas and methods that don’t work before they become ingrained, so you don’t have to waste time and energy unlearning bad teachings and habits.

A powerful way discussed in Ultralearning to incorporate experimentation into a learning project is to create a hypothesis about what’s holding you back and then immediately test it with drills (activities allow you to practice individual aspects of the overall skill you’re trying to learn) that’ll provide immediate feedback about whether you’re right.

For example, when I was learning golf, I would video my swing from two angles and compare the clips to a model wing (Adam Scott) to gain quick informational feedback on what was right and wrong in addition to the shots I was hitting (outcome feedback).

I would then pick one unwanted deviation from the model (coming into the ball too steeply was a big one), form a hypothesis as to why this was happening (hips weren’t rotating enough), and look for drills online to help with this. In some cases, it took dozens of hypotheses and drills before I found the right combination that corrected the error (in the case of too steep of a downswing, the culprit turned out to be not my hips but my arms, which were rushing too quickly to the ball, and my wrists and shoulders, which weren’t rotating enough during the downswing). 

Then I’d tackle the next fault in the same way, until my swing was close enough to the model to allow me to play well.

This basic approach works tremendously well in any activity.

4

László considered ‘the ability to handle monotony, the capability to sustain interest and persistent attention’ as key traits.

My Note

“László” refers to László Polgár, who successfully raised his daughters Zsuzsa, Zsófia, and Judit to be chess prodigies. Judit and Zsuzsa became the best and second-best female chess players in the world, and Zsófia achieved the titles of International Master and Woman Grandmaster.

Regarding László’s take on endurance and persistence, it reminds me of something hedge fund superstar Ray Dalio said in his book Principles:

“While there might be more glamour in coming up with the brilliant new ideas, most of success comes from doing the mundane and often distasteful stuff, like identifying and dealing with problems and pushing hard over a long time.”

Consider this:

Pick a sphere or activity in which you’d like to improve (fitness, finances, feather painting, whatever).

Now, if you could get better by a mere 1% every day for a year, how much progress will you have made by the time you’re done?

The answer might surprise you. You’ll be 37 times better than when you started. 

Read: A Scientific Guide to Habits: How to Build Good Ones and Break Bad Ones

This is the power of compound interest applied to life, which produces not arithmetic but geometric progression over time. Thus, an apparently insignificant, unnoticeable change repeated often enough can produce exponential growth or decay.

What’s more, this principle is as inescapable as gravity. 

It’s either working for or against you, every minute of every day, and in your every interaction with life. Everything is in a state of flux—always getting better or worse, never remaining exactly the same.

The only effective way to wield this double-edged weapon is with habits that accrue to you, grain by grain, the rich harvests you seek.

This is the “secret” to “overnight successes” and “surprising collapses,” which are striking manifestations of gradual accumulation, not sudden seismic shifts, like the snowflakes that turn into the avalanche.

And so, think again of the area you want to improve in, and ask yourself:

What am I doing every day to accomplish this?

If you don’t have a good answer, it’s time to reconsider your priorities, because your daily actions—your routine—will mostly determine the trajectory of your life.

Just forty-five minutes of exercise every day can banish disease and dysfunction.

Just thirty minutes of reading every day can turn you into an expert in just about anything.

Just a few hours of deep work every day can produce a legacy. 

As James Clear says in his book Atomic Habits:

“Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”

Are you “voting” the way you know you should?

5

Basically, you should try to avoid situations that always make you feel good (or bad) about your performance.

My Note

Generally, strenuous effort provides a greater benefit to learning than easy actions—and especially when doing drills or the activity itself. Thus, you don’t want a learning environment wherein you rarely fail or mostly fail. You want just enough challenge to allow you to stretch the limits of your ability.

This means you must actively manage your environment, dialing up or down the difficulty as required by your performance, and you must avoid falling into the habit of reviewing or practicing what you know and are good at as opposed to pushing yourself to learn and expand your knowledge and capabilities.

This approach combined with the mechanism of immediate feedback will likely make you feel uncomfortable, frustrated, and self-consciousness, and that’s okay—those are natural reactions to the process.

Brace up, though, because the payoff will not only be the satisfaction of increasing your knowledge and skill but also the fun you’ll have with the activity during play/performance (versus learning) as you get better and better.

Have you read Ultralearning by Scott Young? What did you think? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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