Ultralearning

Author(s): Scott H. Young
Read: 08/18/19

I have been following Young’s experiments and learning advice for more than 5 years, since my days in college. I have managed to incorporate some of his tips into my own learning projects so I was very happy when he published this book.

The book distills and condenses a lot of knowledge from his blog. It is very easy to read and most of the tips and tricks that he explains are backed up by research in Psychology and actual experiments that he or a few test subjects have carried out.

If you are embarking on a new learning project I encourage you to give this book a read and try to apply some of the principles. The key is to experiment and see what works for you. Don’t take things for granted!

To summarize, the book presents a set of principles for ultralearning.

Meta learning.

This is the first step in the process and should be carried out with care.

Here is where you plan what you want to learn and how.

Questions to ask are:

Why? Is this something instrumental for your career, a means to an end, curiosity?

What? Topics, concepts, etc. you want to learn.

How? Depends on “what”. Here you need to adapt the choose the topics you want to learn. You need to also decide on timing, how much you want/can spend learning?

Feedback. How are you going to get it? This is perhaps the most important bit in my experience. Good feedback can skyrocket your learning.

Focus

Learning something new is hard. Try to avoid distractions. The key idea here is to use the environment in your favor. For example study in a library.

Directness

Learn by doing.

Practice as much as you can. Get your hands dirty.

Drills

Determine your weakest points and drill on those. Repeat.

Practice mindfully and deliberately (see Deep Work by Cal Newport).

Retrieval

Actively review the material. This should be something you do before every session.

Use flashcards and spaced repetition.

Have some free recall sessions in which you try to recall as much of the material as possible.

Feedback

Don’t fear it.

Avoid negative/personal feedback. This will hurt you and not help you in your learning process.

Try to find corrective feedback. This type of feedback helps you amend your mistakes and move forward.

Retention

Forgetting is exponential.

We tend to forget the latest things we have learned. Make sure you practice them.

Keep in mind that memories erode over time, this is why habits like spaced repetition are key.

Vivid memories decay more slowly. For more about memory check “Moonwalking with Einstein”.

Intuition

Intuition is really a lot of experience packed together.

Try to think in first principles.

Try hard problems. Set yourself a “struggle timer” and attempt difficult problems before reading the solutions.

Use the Feynman technique: attempt to explain things in the simplest way possible. If you get stuck, go back to the material and repeat. You don’t really know something until you are able to explain it, or write it. Remember, “writing is thinking”. Use this to your advantage.

Experimentation

Always have a bias towards action. Trial and error is Nature’s most useful learning tactic.

Finally, as usual, below are my highlights from the book.

Notes and Highlights

Active practices creates skill

Learning can be very useful, of course, but the danger is that the act of soaking up new facts can be disconnected from the process of refining a new skill.

Paul Graham, …, nonce noted, “In many fields a year of focused work plus caring a lot would be enough”. Similarly, I think most people would be surprised by what they could accomplish with a year (of a few months) of focused learning.

Ultralearning isn’t easy. It’s hard and frustrating and requires stretching outside the limits of where you feel comfortable. However, the things you can accomplish make it worth the effort.

The ability to learn hard things quickly is going to become increasingly valuable, and thus it is worth developing to whatever extent you can, even if it requires some investment first.

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

Aggressively paced coding bootcamps can get participants up to a level where they can compete for jobs much faster than those with a normal undergraduate degree.

[Reminds me of LambdaSchoool.]

The self-consciousness that is absent in flow may need to be present in both ultralearning and deliberate practice, as you need to consciously adjust your approach. Working on a programming problem at the limit of your abilities, pushing yourself to write in a style that is unfamiliar to you, or trying to minimize your accent when speaking a new language is each a task that goes against the automatic patterns you may have accumulated.

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 that you want to get better at, the problem of directness will likely go away.

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

[[ Lift heavy weights. ]]

Human beings don’t have the ability to know with certainty how well they’ve learned something. Instead, we need to rely on clues from our experience of studying to give us a feeling about how well we’re doing.

[Karpicke’s research]

“The best feedback is informative and usable by the student(s) who receive it. Optimal feedback indicates the difference between the current state and the desired learning state AND helps students to take a step to improve their learning.”

Feedback too soon may turn your retrieval practice effectively into passive review, which we already know is less effective for learning. For hard problems, I suggest setting yourself a timer to encourage you to think hard on difficult problems before giving up to look at the correct answer.

Only by developing enough experience with problem solving can you build up a deep mental model of how other problems work. Intuition sounds magical, but the reality may be more banal —the product of a large volume of organized experience dealing with the problem.

A … reason for the value of experimentation as you approach mastery is that abilities are more likely to stagnate after you’ve mastered the basics. Learning in the early phases of a skill is an act of accumulation. You acquire new facts, knowledge, and skills to handle problems you didn’t know how to solve before. Getting better, however, increasingly becomes an act of ultralearning; not only must you learn to solve problems you couldn’t before, you must unlearn stale and ineffective approaches for solving those problems.