Book Review: Ultralearning

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After college, Scott Young found himself in a position like many other young people. He had just spent several years and a bunch of money to get a degree, but it didn’t seem that degree would be much help to him. He considered his options carefully.

When he discovered MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), Scott found a way to learn skills he thought were important. Since MIT had a full range of courses online, he decided he could learn all the technical content required of undergraduates getting a degree in computer science. He wasn’t after the degree. He wasn’t after many of the non-technical courses that were required for the degree. He was looking for technical knowledge that would help him move forward. Here’s how he describes what happened.

“Completing the project was eye-opening for me. For years, I had thought the only way to learn things deeply was to push through school. Finishing this project taught me not only that this assumption was false but that this alternate path could be more fun and exciting.”

Scott learned a lot about learning from his experience. He tested the principles by applying them to learning to draw. He discovered several other people who had done intense learning projects. That’s how he got to writing Ultralearning. He says it this way.

“In writing this book, I wanted to bring together the common principles I observed in their unique projects and in my own. I wanted to strip away all the superficial differences and strange idiosyncrasies and see what learning advice remains. I also wanted to generalize from their extreme examples something an ordinary student or professional can find useful.”

He succeeded. If you want to learn about how to learn and how to learn more quickly, there is a lot here for you. Almost 50 years ago, I was able to get my degree through a special program where I didn’t have to attend any classes. All I had to do was complete some written assignments, show up and take the tests. Since then, I’ve been in many business situations where I needed to learn new material quickly and thoroughly. The learning conformed to Scott Young’s definition of ultralearning.

“A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.”

Even with that experience, I picked up many things from this book I will use to do better. The ultralearning framework was one important thing. I wish I’d had it for the last 50 years. The framework is based on 6 principles.

Metalearning: draw a map of your project.
Directness (the principle where I learned the most)

Most of the projects the author describes are big ones. They’re going to take a while and you must remain disciplined and intense for weeks, if not months. The projects in this book are mostly projects that became the primary focus for those pursuing them.

That’s perfect for you if you, say, want to learn conversational Urdu or master French cuisine. But there’s good news here for anyone that has less extensive learning needs. If you’re in business today, you will face many situations where you have to learn new material quickly. This book will help you do that.

There’s more. When you master the skills to learn things quickly, you’re acquiring knowledge that will enrich your life. You don’t need to apply these skills only to business or “serious” issues. Use them to learn something you’ve always wanted to learn. Then do it again.

In a Nutshell

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career by Scott Young will help you learn the skills to master new material quickly. Buy this book if you want to pursue a massive self-directed learning project. Buy it if you want to develop learning skills that will serve you well over the course of your life and career.

Scott Young’s blog is an excellent resource. Check it out.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.


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