Book review: Ultralearning by Scott H Young

Ultralearning by Scott H Young

Last week I returned to a book that I read four years ago, Ultralearning by Scott H Young.

In the book Young outlines an approach he claims can help anyone learn anything deeply and quickly.

With life continuing at such an incredible pace and technology changing all the time, I bought this book hoping that it might give me some insights into how to learn Spanish faster, learn the latest additions to CSS faster, learn… well, anything faster.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Young’s approach was already similar to an approach that I had stumbled upon by trial and error, reflection and adjustment.

Young’s ultralearning approach offers nine stages:

  1. Metalearning
  2. Focus
  3. Directness
  4. Drill
  5. Retrieval
  6. Feedback
  7. Retention
  8. Intuition
  9. Experimentation

As I read through the book again, I noticed that these nine stages can be grouped into three categories.

Preparation

In the first stage, Metalearning, draw a map. Ask why you want to learn, and then what is it that you want to learn? Understand the terrain—see the big picture, before tackling the third question: how are you going to learn it?

The second stage, Focus, he subtitles, “sharpen your knife”—learn how to avoid distractions. There are three possible sources of distration: your environment, the task itself (some things are easier to focus on than others) and your mind.

In the third stage, Directness, Young urges the learner to just do it. For example, it may sound obvious, but if you want to learn to ice skate, go and learn to skate on the ice — learning to rollerskate may be similar in many ways, but those skills won’t immediately transfer to ice skating. Get involved in the environment in which you want to learn, but most importantly… just go and do it.

Learning loop

In the middle section, Drill, Retrieval and Feedback, Young outlines an approach whereby you work hard on attacking your weakest areas first (Drill) and offers different techniques for doing so.

Again, it may sound obvious but Retrieval is essential for learning. I wish I had known about this when I was sitting exams at high school and university. Test yourself to learn. In exams, we sit with a blank page and we pull the information from our memory. Revising by reading things over and over again isn’t as effective. So, while learning we should follow the same pattern as we do when sitting the exam: sit with a blank page and remember stuff. The act of ‘reaching’ inside our memory physically helps to strengthen those memories.

Lastly, Young urges us to seek honest Feedback. There are three types of feedback, he says: 1. Are you doing it wong? 2. What are you doing wrong? 3. How can you fix what you are doing wrong? The answers to the feedback helps us to know what to drill next, and so we enter a learning loop.

Going deeper

The final three stages (Retention, Intuition and Exploration) explore how to keep what we learn and accelerate our learning.

Forgetting is our natural default — if we don’t use it, we lose it. In stage seven, Retention, Young explains how spacing our learning over weeks is more effective than cramming. He offers insights into how to embed our learning so that it becomes a part of us (like riding a bike), and advocates overlearning — do more than is required to really embed that learning into our memories.

I found stage eight, Intuition, particularly interesting. Dig deep before building up, he says. The difference between a beginner and an expert is that the expert has gone deep into the subject and understands its principals — focus on understanding these roots first before focusing on the superficial. Don’t give up easily, prove things to understand them, always start with a concrete example and ask lots of questions — these are all excellent ways to going deeper.

Finally, stage nine, Experimentation — explore outside your comfort zone. Experimentation, he says, is the key to mastery. This ties into the third stage of the Japanese concept of shuhari:

Shuhari, we are told, can be decomposed in three kanjis:

shu (守) “protect”, “obey”—traditional wisdom—learning fundamentals, techniques, heuristics, proverbs.

ha (破) “detach”, “digress”—breaking with tradition—detachment from the illusions of self, to break with tradition – to find exceptions to traditional wisdom, to find new approaches. In some styles of Japanese music (gagaku and noh), it is also the middle of the song.

ri (離) “leave”, “separate”—transcendence—there are no techniques or proverbs, all moves are natural, becoming one with spirit alone without clinging to forms; transcending the physical – there is no traditional technique or wisdom, all movements are allowed.

Wikipedia

Conclusion

There is a lot more to this book than I have been able to sketch out in this post, but I have certainly found this to be a useful approach to learning new things or expanding my knowledge about things I already know something of.

This approach has given me the confidence to just get stuck in and learn and not feel overwhelmed by the enormity of human knowledge. Often, I’ve found that simply mapping out the subject, then identifying some immediate weak spots and running them through the learning loop of drill, retrieval and feedback has been game changing for me.

If you are looking to improve your learning approach, this is definitely a book that I would recommend.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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