Ultralearning – How to Learn Faster (A Thorough Analysis)

Ultralearning – How to Learn Faster (A Thorough Analysis)


This is Tristan de Montebello.

He is a very interesting guy based in Los Angeles, California and, one day, he decided to challenge his skills on public speaking.


Tristan did not have any experience in the field.


However, he decided to compete in Toastmasters World Championship – the most famous public speaking competition in the world.

He managed to become a public speaking expert within a few months and, eventually, he made it into the top 10.


How did he achieve all that?


The answer is Scott Young.

One of the most famous self-development bloggers out there and a person that devoted his life to creating strategies on how to accelerate the process of learning.


His most recent book, Ultralearning, is considered the autodidact’s dream.


It is a manual that offers concrete and practical advice on how to learn any skill fast.


It draws inspiration from Scott’s own experience and also from significant figures across history that managed to transcend the norm and showcase unprecedented mastery in their field of choice.


I loved the idea of ultralearning because learning, in itself, is an activity absolutely elemental to our existence.


Thus, taking learning to the next level isn’t something trivial, rather it is something that can prove momentous in one’s life.


Ultralearning – How to learn faster


Principle 1. Metalearning


If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. -Isaac Newton


The prefix meta comes from the Greek word μετά, which means “beyond.”


We use meta to signify something related to itself, i.e. something self-referential. In our case, meta-learning means learning about learning, or learning how to learn. According to Scott:


“The idea οf metalearning is that if you’re going to embark on a learning project you should first spend a little bit of time learning how to do the learning project. That seems a little bit recursive, but it’s also obvious because if you’re going to learn a new language and you’ve never done this before, there’s many many many ways to do it and many many pitfalls. And so if you spend a couple hours doing research ahead of time you’re going to get a much more optimized path forward than if you just, ah this is the first book I saw, this is the first research I saw. Oh, this app seems to be popular, let’s download it, like that approach to learning things, which is what most people do.”


The acquisition of every skill, in the beginning, seems like a strenuous act. The only way to ameliorate this process is to understand the mechanics of the skill first.


“Learn how to learn” is the basic motto behind ultralearning and the core idea that needs to be espoused before embarking on a learning journey.


In Scott’s words: “Metalearning forms the map, showing you how to get to your destination without getting lost.”


Principle 2. Focus


Now I will have less distraction. —Leonhard Euler, mathematician, upon losing the sight in his right eye


When Bill Gates first met Warren Buffett, their host at dinner, Gates’ mother, asked everyone around the table to identify what they believed was the single most important factor in their success through life. Gates and Buffett gave the same one-word answer: “Focus.”


There is nothing more powerful than focus in life. I can personally attest to that and the aforementioned parable reinforces my point.


Focus isn’t an easy thing and it often constitutes a form of superpower in a distraction-oriented world.


Every one of us has to face daily numerous obstacles that impede our ability to stay focused on a task.


Obstacles like procrastination, inability to maintain focus, and even a failure to create the right kind of focus.


But this can be normal.


Especially when we face novelty and challenges that seem arcane to our environment, resistance starts to creep in and our ability to focus suffers as a result.


There is no easy way to tackle that conundrum. We need to just accept it as a standard tenet of the learning process and quit being too judgmental with ourselves whenever we fail to overcome it.


As Scott states in the book:


“Recognize where you are, and start small. If you’re the kind of person who can’t sit still for a minute, try sitting still for half a minute. Half a minute soon becomes one minute, then two. Over time, the frustrations you feel learning a particular subject may become transmuted into genuine interest.”


Principle 3. Directness


He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water jar. —Leonardo da Vinci


One of the major issues one has to face when dealing with a new skill is that of directness.


Directness refers to the ability of the learner to approach the most crucial aspects of the skill head-on.


Usually, instead of immersing ourselves in the skill itself, we try to find shortcuts or hacks that can make the skill easier to acquire.


Scott explains that beautifully in the book:


“We want to speak a language but try to learn mostly by playing on fun apps, rather than conversing with actual people. We want to work on collaborative, professional programs but mostly code scripts in isolation. We want to become great speakers, so we buy a book on communication, rather than practice presenting. In all these cases, the problem is the same: directly learning the thing we want feels too uncomfortable, boring, or frustrating, so we settle for some book, lecture, or app, hoping it will eventually make us better at the real thing.”


The best way to learn directly is to immerse in projects relevant to the field from the beginning.


Despite the innate challenging nature of such an endeavor, the benefits are immense.


Principle 4. Drill


Take care of the bars and the piece will take care of itself. —Philip Johnston, composer


Benjamin Franklin was considered by many, the greatest polymath of all time.

He was a politician, an entrepreneur, an inventor, and a great writer.


Especially when it came to writing, Franklin would constantly try to come up with methods that would allow him to improve this extremely important skill.


For instance, he would read “The Spectator” and he would take notes on articles that appeared there. He would then leave the notes for a few days and come back to them, trying to reconstruct the original article from memory.

By doing this many times, he would familiarize himself with the concepts and eventually automate the ways he would internalize them.


Such a method is considered a drill and drills allow you, through repetition, to improve on weaknesses in your learning process. This is what Scott thinks on the topic:


“I think a lot of us have a bad feeling about drills. We remember doing our times tables when we were kids or memorizing something and it feels like drudgery, it doesn’t feel as fun, and often it feels like it’s tedious or unnecessary. I think the problem is that if you just give someone a drill and say, OK you’re going to do this 100 times, then they often don’t know why they’re learning it. And it’s often not driven by any kind of need. It’s just that’s what’s next on the list to learn. The way I like to think of drills is that if you do drills properly, then they actually feel super useful because what you’re doing is that you’re encountering some real learning challenge. It’s too difficult and so you’re breaking it apart or breaking it down so that you’re working on a simpler aspect and then going back and trying to reintegrate it to work back into the original problem.”


Principle 5. Retrieval


It pays better to wait and recollect by an effort from within, than to look at the book again. —William James, psychologist


Let’s say you are a student and you have to prepare for an exam.


You have three different options apropos how to allocate your time:


  1. Passive review – Go over your notes and the book.
  2. Create a concept map – Write down the main concepts in a diagram and see how they are related to each other.
  3. Free recall – Retrieve the knowledge from the book and remember what was in it.

Passive review and concept mapping are inefficient.


Free recall is the best way to go.


Humans beings can’t know with confidence how well they’ve learned something. Instead, we need to constantly test our knowledge by evaluating how easy it is to remember it. According to Scott:


“The thing is that free recall is actually a lot more similar to what you actually have to do on tests and it’s a lot more similar to what you have to do in real life. Very often is that it’s not just merely “Oh I’m looking at this information, have I seen this before,” which is what the sort of self-check is when you’re reviewing. But, here’s a question what’s the answer? Or can you activate this knowledge without having it in front of you? It’s a much more difficult task, and it’s something that you actually have to actively practice.”


Principle 6. Feedback


Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. -Mike Tyson



Comedy Cellar is a comedy club in NY.


It is designed for a small crowd and famous comedians go there to test new material.


It is the best way for them to gather feedback and evaluate whether or not the new material is worth using in bigger shows.


Feedback constitutes a great way to assess one’s level of competence in any field.


But feedback can be tricky.


What is good feedback and what isn’t?


Scott has done extensive research on the topic and his analysis can be very enlightening:


“A lot of feedback isn’t actually very helpful and if the feedback distracts from your ability to do the task or, worse, it has a demotivating influence on your performance, then it can actually be bad. If I tell you for instance: ‘Oh you’re so great at this, you’re so smart,’ when you’re learning, as a teacher, that actually has a negative effect. One of the things that researchers found is that praise is not useful for students because if it doesn’t have any information the student can use to improve, it can have a demotivating effect. ‘Oh I’m doing this really well, ok I’m not going to work so hard now.’ I thought that was really interesting because we often know that really harsh and critical feedback is demotivating, but the opposite is not great for feedback either.”


Feedback can oftentimes make us feel harsh and uncomfortable. Ego usually gets in the way, as well as the intentions and experience of the person offering feedback.


Extracting the signal from the noise can be challenging, but it is a challenge we ought to embrace.


Principle 7. Retention


Memory is the residue of thought. —Daniel Willingham, cognitive psychologist



Nigel Richards obviously possesses a great memory, but that’s not what made him a Scrabble champion.


In one of his interviews, Richards said the following:


“It’s hard work, you have to have dedication to learn,” elsewhere adding “I’m not sure there is a secret, it’s just a matter of learning the words.”


It is self-evident that a learning ethos, combined with a good memory, can help you go a long way.


You forget for different reasons, like time, overwriting old memories with new ones, or inability to access specific parts of your memory.


However, memory, despite its obscure nature, can be “manipulated” through different mechanisms.


Mechanisms like spacing, proceduralization, overlearning, and mnemonics.


These are all great techniques used by ultralearners. They can effectively counteract your short- and long-term rates of forgetting and end up making a huge difference in your memorization.


Principle 8. Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up.


Do not ask whether a statement is true until you know what it means. —Errett Bishop, mathematician


Richard Feyman was one of the most beautiful minds of the previous century.

What made him such a prolific figure amongst scientists wasn’t just his intelligence but also his unparalleled ability to continuously seek knowledge.


The surface wasn’t of interest to him. What mattered the most, was how deep he could delve into a problem.


Because if you go deep enough, anything can become interesting. And through depth, you develop intuition.


Intuition occurs when we do things naturally – when there is no struggle entailed in our thinking process.


When you do and feel things intuitively you operate on a level beyond comprehension.


It is the level where you know the outcome of something before you even deal with it.


This is the secret behind most geniuses and this is probably the first step to any form of mastery.


Principle 9.  : Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone.


Results? Why, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work. —Thomas Edison


This is the starry night.

One of my favorite paintings and a piece of art that, along with others, made Vincent van Gogh one of the most influential painters across space and time.


Van Gogh was a prodigy of his time. He started painting at the age of 26, with no previous experience in any form of art, and within ten years he managed to ascend to the upper echelons of the art scene of his era.


The sad thing, however, is that, like many great artists, Van Gogh was celebrated the most, posthumously.


During his life, he was considered weird and crazy by some. He was extremely introverted and shy and, more often than not, he would be isolated by his peers.


What kept him going was his unfaltering obsession with drawing. He would draw for days straight, changing sceneries and persistently trying to improve his style.


Scott in his book raises a great point with regards to Van Gogh’s evolution:


“How can we explain these discrepancies? How does someone who starts late, with no obvious talent and many handicaps, nonetheless become one of the world’s greatest artists, with one of the most recognizable and distinctive styles?”


Of course, tenacity played a significant role in his development, but most importantly it was his willingness to constantly experiment that made him stand out so fast. In Scott’s words:


“To really master something, to really reach the levels of creativity and genius that we associate with the kind of end products of a learning goal, you really need to experiment, because, eventually, you get onto a path that no one’s been before. When you are mastering a skill at that high level, you are doing something that no one’s done before. So, learning in that sense is not something you can just ask some expert what’s the right way to learn this, because you are often approaching limits of things that you know no one has done it exactly that way before and so you have to sort of develop that approach yourself.”


In closing


All of these principles are only starting points.


The art of learning will always be projecting new challenges to one’s life, but, when you get the fundamentals right, the substrate becomes more solid and you become more ready to engross yourself into new ideas and skills.


And as Scott eloquently suggests towards the end of the book:


“True mastery comes not just from following the path trodden by others but also from exploring possibilities they haven’t yet imagined.”


Learning is an activity predicated on structure and a well defined daily schedule. The “30 Challenges – 30 Days – Zero Excuses” project, aims to achieve just that. You can embark on the most rewarding 30-day journey here.”


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Adrian Iliopoulos

I am the founder and main contributor at "The Quintessential Mind" - A unique personal blog that offers a holistic approach to self-development. I am striving to create high-quality content by investing in a reality-based form of self-help, informed by a deep understanding of psychology, philosophy and my own personal experiences and social adventures.
Adrian Iliopoulos