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Level Up Notes 4.0 - Scott H. Young's book "Ultralearning"

My Google Chrome Death Clock says I have 10,649 days of livin’ left and the seconds are quite visibly ticking.

That may sound like a lot to you but to me it’s clear it is time to carpe diem, take no prisoners and level up my learning game.

With some new learning goals and a very full life I recently found myself fretting over how I could organize and optimize my learning. This brooding just happened to coincide with the publication of Scott Young’s book Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career.

Without a lot of free time my learning needs to be somewhat self-directed and could benefit from being more efficient. Reading this book helped me learn to structure my time in a more methodical and efficient manner that I expect will transfer into better outcomes for my patients.

If this type of learning intrigues you I’m sharing my biggest takeaways from Ultralearning below but highly suggest you read the book for the finer details.

What is Ultralearning?

Who is Scott H Young?

I’ve been following Scott H Young on his eponymous website dedicated to all things learning for a couple years. Young is most famous for his MIT challenge. He completed the MIT computer science degree curriculum independently through MIT’s free online courses. Not only did he not break the bank with this feat, he did it in a speedy six months, instead of the typical 4 years.

“A four year degree used to be an assurance of a decent job. Now it is barely a foot in the door. The best careers demand sophisticated skills that you’re unlikely to stumble upon by chance.”

There are several ways you can apply the ideas of ultralearning but it’s not a cookie cutter, copy and paste method. Following the nine principles outlined in the book and below will help guide your learning ventures.

Principle 1: Metalearning

First Draw a Map

Meta-learning is the learning process of learning. It’s the critical first step where you gain awareness about how knowledge is organized and most commonly procured within your topic.

Young emphasizes the importance of planning ahead. Spending time on meta-learning helps you in the short term and over the long term.

The research you do in meta-learning can be broken down into asking 3 questions:

Why? - why are you doing this? what is your motivation to learn?

What? - what knowledge and/or skills will you need to be successful? (Best to attack the more challenging ones first.)

How? – what resources and methods will help you succeed?

How much planning should you do?

Most people don’t spend enough time on learning goals, methods, and resources but it’s also easy to use research as a way of procrastinating and avoiding learning.

Solve both these problems by following the 10 Percent rule

- 10% of your total expected learning time should be put into research before you start learning.

Principle 2: Focus

Sharpen Your Knife

There are 3 ways people struggle with focusing: starting, sustaining, and optimizing the quality of one’s focus.

To overcome these hurdles you need to identify which apply to you and proceed with the appropriate fix.

Problem 1: Failing to start focusing, AKA procrastinating

This is often unconscious; therefore awareness of when and why you procrastinate is the first step.

Solve an initiating problem by committing to only five minutes on the task before you can stop. This hack helps you get started. If you find yourself taking too many breaks try the Pomodoro technique with 25 minutes on five minutes off

Problem 2: Inability to sustain focus

Focus more on deliberate practice than trying to achieve flow. Young suggests trying this for 50-60 min chunks.

3 great tips to minimize distractions/ help sustain focus

Distractions source one: your environment.

Eliminate electronics and other temptations in your learning environment.

Train yourself to avoid multitasking.

Distractions source two: your task

Choose the learning tool that makes it easiest for you to focus.

· use noise canceling headphones

· taking notes while reading (instead of after) helps you concentrate on the task.

Distraction source three: your mind

Restlessness and/or daydreaming are bound to happen. Practice mindfulness to train yourself to deal with these fluctuations in focus. Use the following advice “learn to let it rise, note it, and release it or let it go”

Problem three: failing to create the right kind of focus

Maximize learning by increasing your overall feeling of alertness to promote intense concentration. When task complexity is greater you’ll benefit from a relaxed focus.

Principle 3: Directness

Go Straight Ahead.

“Directness is the idea of learning being tied closely to the situation or context you want to use it."

This principle addresses the active aspect of learning, the actual doing vs. the more passive reading, watching or listening about your topic. For example, learning to write better by writing (not by reading about how to write better). This applies to many areas including coaching, public speaking, cooking, etc.

Many people avoid this active manner of learning because it feels uncomfortable and difficult. That’s a problem because direct learning is crucial for the transfer of knowledge and skill to a different context, (real life).

“Whenever you learn something new, it’s a good habit to ask yourself where and how the knowledge will manifest itself.” “If you can answer that, you can then ask whether you are doing anything to tie what you’re learning to that context.”

Principle 4 – Drill

Attack Your Weakest Point

In chemistry the rate-limiting step is the slowest step in a reaction mechanism.

Many liken this phenomenon to the narrowness of an hourglass bottleneck, that essentially determines the rate of the overall reaction.

The key with learning is to identify your rate-limiting step in the process and work on it specifically. Young argues that drills are a constructive way focus on the singular aspect of learning you most need.

Drills necessitate that the learner reflect on the knowledge gained in Principle 1 of Building your Map with an appraisal of their personal needs.

Principle 5: Retrieval

Test to Learn

Retrieval is the process of trying to recall facts and concepts from memory. It’s one way we can assess if we are actually learning. If you can’t retrieve the information from your memory, your attempt at application and transfer may not only be difficult but potentially incorrect.

The process of self-testing (without previously reviewing the material) outperforms pre-review of information in the literature on learning. And combining self-testing retrieval practice with the ability to look up answers when needed seems to be the most effective way to help material stick.

You might want to consider the possibility that passive pre-review of your notes is giving you more of an illusion of learning than the real deal.

How to Practice Retrieval

Flash Cards – simple and effective but only work for retrieval of a paired cue and response

Free Recall – a method of documenting what you remember after you finish engaging in a learning venture like a book chapter, class, conversation or lecture.

The Question-Book Method – a note-taking method whereby you phrase your notes as questions to be answered later.

Self-Generated Challenges- create challenges for yourself as you go through your passive review

Closed Book Learning- preventing or limiting exposure to resources when reviewing or learning

Principle 6: Feedback

Don’t Dodge the Punches

Feedback on one’s performance is vital to learning. The timing of feedback (prompt for the win here) is more important than amount unless you don’t seek any feedback. Zero evaluation of your learning has no place in leveling up. The fear of it is worse than the experience.

Feedback serves as an effective motivator and tool for learning as it guides your future learning.

Research shows that more feedback isn’t always better but what matters more is the type of feedback.

What kind of feedback do you need?

  • Outcome feedback: are you doing it wrong?

  • Informational feedback: what are you doing wrong?

  • Corrective feedback: how can you fix it?

Principle 7: Retention

Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket

Memory is vital to learning information well but our minds are like leaky buckets.

“Forgetting is the default, not the exception,” therefore you have to develop strategies to learn to cope with this.

There are a variety of systems that facilitate retention including technology apps, mnemonic systems and simply having conversations that reinforce learning.

These systems work by using one or more of the following 4 mechanisms:

Spacing-Repeating to Remember

This is the opposite of cramming. Learning with sessions spread over a longer period of time decreases your short-term performance but improves your long-term retention. One of my favorite tools for this is an app called Anki.


“Knowing how” differs from “Knowing that”. Procedural skills like knowing how to ride a bike when learned become automatic and are more likely to stick in the long-term.


It’s actually practice beyond perfect that makes things stick. One of the attributes of successful ultralearners is intensity. They are the type of people that will over-learn.


Mnemonics are strategies that typically use visual or auditory cues to help with the retention and retrieval of information. For example, ROY G BIV to remember the colors of the rainbow.

Mnemonics are helpful in learning details and patterns as well as bringing clarity to abstract information.

A couple of the books I’ve found helpful for learning how to use mnemonics are Unlimited Memory and Memory Palace.

Principle 8 – Intuition

Dig Deep Before Building Up

Ultralearning includes the development of skills to deal with problems on a deeper, intuitive level.

Use the following guidelines to help you develop deep intuition on your topic:

  • Don’t Give Up on Hard Problems Easily

  • Prove Things for Better Understanding

  • Learn from Concrete Examples before Abstract

  • Don’t Fool Yourself (aka, Ask A lot of Questions)

One of the most effective ways to develop this deep understanding of material (or reveal your lack of understanding) is to use the Feynman technique. In a nutshell, the Feynman technique involves explaining the concept or information you are learning to someone else (or writing it down for yourself).

Principle 9 – Experimentation

Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone

While metalearning and breaking down your learning into parts may be a key first step to ultralearning, experimenting is critical to mastering your subject. This is where you get creative and learn as an individual.

Three Types of Learning Experimentation

  • Experimenting with Learning Resources (eg, books vs courses)

  • Experimenting with Technique (note cards vs mnemonics)

  • Experimenting with Style (eg, writing or coaching styles)

“Learning is a process of experimenting in two ways: First, the act of learning itself is kind of a trial and error…. Second, the act of experimenting also lies in the process of trying out your learning methods. Try out different approaches and use the ones that work best for you.”

What is your First Ultralearning Project Going to Be?

Perhaps tongue twister mnemonics on the glossal muscles?

“What things could you learn that you have put off due to fears of inadequacy, frustration, or lack of time?”

Step 1: Do Your Research

Step 2: Schedule Your Time

Step 3: Execute Your Plan

Step 4: Review Your Results

Step 5: Chose to Maintain or Master What You’ve Learned


“Average is over” – Tyler Cowen.

If you want to be average then this probably isn’t the book for you but I highly doubt that if you've read this far.

Ultralearning requires fervor, initiative, and dedication to the planning and the process of learning.

The world is changing swiftly and smart folks like Scott Young and Yuval Noah Harari discuss how this fast change will require the ability to adapt (aka LEARN) quickly. Success will increasingly fall to those that stay relevant by easily learning new skills and abilities.

When we learn something new it helps develop our self-identity of our abilities as well as our possibilities. Go seek those possibilities.

Pictures courtesy of Oxana, Yaroslav Orshikov, Vek Labs, Matt Antonioli, Jose Aljovin, Dylan Nolte, Marc Schaefer, and Haynes Potter on Unsplash


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