Reading Summary: Ultralearning

Ultralearning is a quite interesting book from one of my favorite bloggers: Scott Young. Famous for his “MIT Challenge” – which he completed four years of MIT coursework in one single year by completely self-studying – he now blogs regularly on studying methods, student cognitions, and everything related.

This book is his summary of his researches and experiences of studying. The book’s author argued that: there’s one possible way to learn and improve yourself, with intensive training and exercises. Like training muscles, you can adopt an extraordinary, unorthodox training plan for your brains, and pick up a new skill in a short amount of time, be it a foreign language, programming, sketch, or even public speaking. He called it "ultralearning." In the book, he researched many references and interviewed like-minded friends, who had similar experiences of acquiring or improving a skill intensively. And he summarizes all the essential principles, as the guide to a successful “ultralearning” project.

  • Draw a Map: Research and layout a roadmap of what you try to study. Carve out enough time and make it a routine for you to follow.
  • Focus: Train your focus. You cannot learn with efficiency if you can’t focus. It’s one of the most critical capabilities, yet it’s the most difficult to obtain. Most people suffer from not being able to start focusing (procrastination) or not being able to sustain focus (fatigue). It requires a large amount of practice.
  • Directness: Contrary to some beliefs that learning can easily migrate from one skill to another, the author recommends directly target the very skill you’re trying to improve and be laser-focus on it.
  • Drill: This is an area where you need excellent will power: keep finding out your weakest point and attack it ferociously. Do not live in the illusion of improvement, but keep exposing your week point.
  • Retrieval: Test yourself to learn. The author notices though many students complain about missing lectures on online courses, few complain about missing tests. But learning isn’t about passively accepting knowledge. It’s really about acquiring and absorbing. Use the “Feynman techniques” to keep challenging your understanding.
  • Feedback: Get feedback from others, preferably professionals. Their opinions can help you realize your blind spots.
  • Retention: Memory is a huge aspect of learning. Use techniques to retain your knowledge of a subject, like spaced-repetition.
  • Intuition: Study your subject and practice so hard, so that you develop insights on it, and put together what you’ve learned like jigsaw pieces.
  • Experimentation: Finally, once you’ve gained enough skills, try to apply the skills and experiment on it to develop your original creations.

I’ve finished this book in less than a week, and it was a pretty fun read. It included many anecdotes from authors’ friends and intellectual celebrities with high achievements (like Feynman, Ramanujan, Van Gogh, etc.) Also, it comes as a practical guidebook to your own learning projects. Although the book is named “ultralearning,” it does provide principles and tricks on learning, in or outside of school. In many places, it resonates with me as a student.

If I have to pick bones, as a guidebook to learning, this book feels a little verbose on stories. And as research on learning psychology, many of the stories don’t feel formal and convincing enough. But in all, it was a fun read for all the guidelines the book provides. I’d recommend it to anyone who believes learning is an essential part of their life.