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Insights From Ultralearning Pt.1 (#25)

Being able to learn something new on your own is incredibly useful in today’s economy and world, especially in a post-Corona world.

Ultralearning is just a fancy name given by the author (Scott Young) for doing self-directed learning of a hard skill that takes months or years to become good at. 

The author is legit, he completed the entire 4 year MIT computer science curriculum in under a year, and throughout the book he talks at length on how he did that as well as his previous experience picking up multiple languages.

If you’ve ever taught yourself a foreign language, or a hard in-demand creative skill you’ll relate to a lot of principles, tactics, and methods presented in the book. 

Part 1 of the insights details a roadmap for learning, strategies on how to focus, directly applying the skill, how to work on your weaknesses, and how to remember stuff when you need to...

Characteristics Of Ultralearners

  • Usually work alone, often grinding obsessively for months and years at a skill, and are aggressive about optimizing their learning strategies. 
  • Biggest obstacle to ultralearning is simply that most people don’t care enough about their own self-education to get started. 
  • The best ultralearners are those who blend the practical reasons for learning a skill with an inspiration that comes from something that excites them. \

The Economy Going Forward

  • “skill polarization” ⇒  increased automation, outsourcing, and regionalization, we are increasingly living in a world in which the top performers do a lot better than the rest. 
  • The ability to distract or delude yourself with technology has never been greater, while at the same it’s the easiest time in history to teach yourself something new

Principle 1: Metalearning - First Draw A Map

  • Metalearning ⇒ learning how to learn the given subject (10% of your time allotted for the whole project should be spent on planning a roadmap)
    • Over the long term, you’ll know your capacity for learning and how to manage your time and motivation
  • Good way to do this kind of research is to reach out to someone who is in the position you want to be in and conduct a 15 minute informational interview (
  • Break things down into concepts, facts, and procedures can enable you to map out obstacles
    • Concepts ⇒ ideas which need to be understood
    • Facts ⇒ anything that needs to be memorized
    • Procedures ⇒ anything that needs to be practiced 

    • Find the common ways people learn the skill or subject. 
      • An hour or two spent online researching the skills you need to know can save you many many hours later on.
      • Find areas of study that align with the goals you identified, and omit or delay elements of your benchmarked curriculum that don’t align with your goals

    Principle 2: Focus - Sharpen Your Knife


    Top 3 Problems People Have With Focus

    • Starting/Procrastinating
      • Recognize that you are feeling some desire not to do that task or a stronger desire to do something else. 
      • Some crutches to beat procrastination
        • Convince yourself to get over just the few minutes of maximal unpleasantness before you take a break (e.g. Pomodoro Technique)
        • Carve out specific hours of your day in advance to work on the project. This approach allows you to make the best use of your limited time. 
      • We procrastinate because at some level there’s a craving to do something else and or there’s an aversion to doing both.
      • Recognizing that you’re procrastinating is the 1st step to avoiding it. 
    • Sustaining Focus
      • How to engage distracting thoughts:  “Learn to let it arise, note it, and release it or let it go”
      • Environment ⇒ Multitasking is unsuitable for ultralearning as it requires concentrating your full mind on the task at hand. 
      • Your TaskDepends on what kind of learner you are, certain modes reading vs video make it easier of what you’re trying to learn.
      • Your Mind ⇒ A clear, calm mind is best for focusing on almost all learning problems. 

    • Failing To Create The Right Kind Of Focus
      • Complex tasks such as solving math problems or writing essays, tend to benefit from a more relaxed kind of focus as opposed to users.

    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 in.
      • Learning directly is hard, it is often more challenging, frustrating and intense than reading, a book, using an app or sitting thru a lecture
      • First and most obvious is that if you learn what a direct connection to the area in which you eventually want to apply the skill
    • Easiest way to learn directly is to simply spend a lot of time doing the thing you want to become good at.  
    • Corporate training or classroom training suffer because you’re unable to transfer what you’ve learned in THAT context and able to apply to a context, in Real Life
    • Strategies To Learn Stuff Directly
      • Many ultralearners opt for projects rather than classes to learn the skills they need.
        • If you organize your learning around producing something, you’re guaranteed to at least learn how to produce that thing. 
      • Surrounding yourself with the target environment in which the skill is practiced, which requires much larger amounts of practice than would be typical.
      • If you can’t actually practice the skill directly, find something that significantly simulates it.
      • Put yourself into an environment where the demands are going to be extremely high, so you’re unlikely to miss any important lessons or feedback. 
      • Project-Based Learning
      • Immersive Learning
      • Flight-Simulator Method
      • The Overkill Approach

    Principle 4: Drill - Attack Your Weakest Point

    • Best place to apply drills in your ultralearning is where one component of a complex skill determines your overall level of performance.
      • Drills require the learner not only to think deeply about what is learned but also figure out what is most difficult and attack that weakness directly rather than focus on what is the most fun or what has already been mastered. 
    • Direct-Then-Drill Approach
      • Step 1: Try to practice the skill directly
      • Step 2: Analyze the direct skill and isolate components in your performance you find difficult to improve because there are too many other things going on for you to focus on them.
      • Step 3: Final step is to go back to direct practice and integrate what you’ve learned.

    • You’ll probably spend a lot of your time in your learning process doing drills just to master an overall skillset.

    • Tactics For Designing Drills:
      • Your language abilities may be held back by having inaccurate pronunciation.
      • The 2nd difficulty with this principle is designing the drill to produce improvement. 
      • Doing drills is hard and often uncomfortable. Teasing out the worst thing about your performance and practicing that in isolation takes guts. 

    Types of Drills

    • Time Slicing
      • Easiest way to create a drill is to isolate a slice in time of a longer sequence of actions (e.g. think of a musician learning a song in music -> they take it a bar or phrase at a time)
    • Cognitive Components
      • Sometimes what you’ll want to practice isn’t a slice in time of a larger skill but a particular cognitive component (e.g. learning proper grammar or pronunciation in a language)
    • The Copycat
      • A difficulty with drills in many creative skills is that it is often impossible to practice one aspect without also doing the work of the others. 
    • The Magnifying Glass Method
      • The Magnifying Glass Method is to spend more time on one component of the skill than you would otherwise which allows you to master that subskill.
    • Prerequisite Chaining
      • A lot of ultralearners sometimes will start a task that’s way too difficult and and when they do poorly, they go back a step, learn one of the foundational topics, and repeat the exercise.

    Principle 5: Retrieval - Test To Learn

    • Best way to learn something is to continuously test yourself on the material to start the feedback loop.
    • Giving someone a test immediately after they learn something improves retention less than giving them a slight delay, long enough so that answers aren’t in mind when they need them.
    • Retrieval not only helps enhance what you’ve learned previously but can even help prepare you to learn better. 
    • If you need to recall something later, you’re best off practicing retrieving it. 
    • The thing that separates mediocre problem-solvers/programmers from great ones isn’t the range of problems they can solve but that the latter often know dozens of ways to solve problems and can select the best one for each situation. 

    How To Practice Retrieval

    • Flash Cards ⇒ perfect for learning languages, maps, med school-type
    • Free Recall ⇒ After reading a section from a book or sitting thru a lecture, try to write down everything you can remember on a blank piece of paper
    • The Question-Book Method ⇒ Another strategy for taking notes is to rephrase what you’ve recorded as questions to be answered later. 
    • Self-Generated Challenges ⇒ As you go through material, you can create challenges for yourself to solve later.
      • If you can encounter a new technique write a note to demonstrate that technique in an actual example.
    • Closed-Book Learning ⇒ Any practice, whether direct or a drill, can be cut off from the ability to look things up.

    "Man, I been self-quarantining for years" - Lil Wayne

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