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Insights From Ultralearning Pt. 2 (#26)

Part 2 highlights how feedback, retrieval, and retention apply to learning. Let's be real if you can't recall it you don't know it.

It also covers a step-by-step process on how to develop intuition, and the value of experimentation.

Once again I like the principles outlined in the book, it's kind of like fundamentals on how to learn.

Principle 6: Feedback: Don’t Dodge The Punches

  • Feedback works well when it provides useful information that can guide future learning.
    • Feedback often backfires when it is aimed at a person’s ego (“o you’re so smart”/ “o you’re so stupid”).

  • Fear of feedback often feels more uncomfortable than experiencing the feedback itself. 
  • Best action is just to dive straight into the hardest environment, since even if the feedback is very negative initially, it can reduce your fears of getting started on a project and allow you to adjust later if it proves too harsh to be helpful. 
  • Ultralearners acquire skills quickly because they seek aggressive feedback when others opt for practice that includes weaker forms of feedback or no feedback at all. 

3 Types Of Feedback:

  • outcome feedback ⇒ tells you something about how well you’re doing overall but offers no ideas as to what you’re doing better or worse --- easiest feedback to get (e.g. grades in school, an entrepreneur releasing a product into the market and does amazingly well or not)
  • informational feedback ⇒ tells you what you’re doing wrong, but it doesn’t tell you how to fix it --  often comes from direct interaction with the environment, it often pairs well with the 3rd principle, directness
  • corrective feedback ⇒ not only shows you what you’re doing wrong, but how to fix it. --- often only available through a coach, mentor, or teacher.

  • Optimal feedback indicates the difference between the current state and the desired learning state AND helps students to take a step to improve their learning which is why paying for a tutor is useful. 

How To Improve Your Feedback Loop

  • Tactic 1: Noise Cancellation ⇒ don’t react to the noise of the feedback, react to the signal (the useful feedback that actually helps you improve what you want to improve on).
  • Tactic 2: Hitting The Difficulty Sweet Spot ⇒ Avoid situations that always make you feel good (or bad) about your performance
  • Tactic 3: Metafeedback ⇒ This kind of feedback isn’t about your performance but about evaluating the overall success of the strategy you’re using to learn (e.g. learning rate). 
  • Tactic 4: High-Intensity Rapid Feedback ⇒ Put yourself into a situation where you’re forced to be immersed in feedback to tighten up the feedback loop (e.g. speaking a language you want to learn from Day 1). 


Principle 7: Retention: Don’t Fill A Leaky Bucket

  • If you can’t recall how something works or how to perform a particular technique then it is useless.

  • It’s so hard to remember things because of the forgetting curve ⇒ as we tend to forget things incredibly quickly after learning them

Why We Forget Stuff

  • Decay: Forgetting With Time
    • Memories simply decay with time, but vivid, meaningful things are more easily recalled than boring or arbitrary information.
  • Interference: Overwriting Old Memories with New Ones
    • Proactive Interference occurs when previously learned information makes acquiring new knowledge harder (e.g. when you want to learn the definition of a word but have difficulty because that word already has a different association in your mind). 
    • Retroactive interference ⇒  when learning something new “erases” an old memory
  • Forgotten Cues 
    • A lot of times memories aren’t actually forgotten but simply inaccessible. 


How To Prevent Forgetting


  • Spacing: Repeat To Remember
    • Don’t cram if you want to remember something long-term.
    • Many ultralearners use spaced-repetition systems like Anki to retain the most knowledge with the least effort.
  • Proceduralization
    • A dominant theory of learning suggest that most skills proceed thru stages - starting declarative (conscious) but ending up procedural (automated) (e.g. learning how to touch-type)
  • Overlearning: Practice Beyond Perfect
    • Overlearning ⇒ additional practice beyond what is required to perform adequately can increase the length of time that memories are stored. 
    • 2 main methods of overlearning:
      • core practice ⇒ continually practicing and refining the core elements of a skill
      • advanced practice ⇒ going one level above a certain set of skills so that core parts of the lower-level skills are overlearned as one applies them in a more difficult domain. 
  • Mnemonics: Converting Facts To Pictures
    • requires a considerable time investment and not as automatic as directly remembering something
    • Usually involve translating abstract or arbitrary information into vivid pictures or spatial maps.
    • 2 disadvantages to mnemonics:

Principle 8: Intuition

  • When it comes to problem-solving, beginners tend to look at superficial features of the problem - experts focus on the deeper principles at work. 
  • Intuition is the product of a lot of experience dealing with the problem so that you can build up a deep mental model


How To Build Your Intuition

  • Rule 1: Don’t Give Up on Hard Problems Easily
      • Give yourself a “struggle timer” as you work on problems. Then after the timer give yourself an additional 10 minutes to push yourself further. 
      • Even if you fail, you’re most likely to remember the way to arrive at the solution when you encounter it. 

    • Rule 2: Prove Things To Understand Them
      • Feynman worked hard on understanding things, and he put incredible amounts of his spare time into mastering the methods that made his intuition work. 
        • He even made a meticulous timetable to allocate hours to his many intellectual pursuits. 
      • Geniuses like Richard Feynman ( and Albert Einstein became masters at things not by following along people’s theorems/ results, but by doing the super hard work of trying to re-create those results from scratch. 
      • The illusion of understanding is very often the barrier to deeper knowledge, because unless that competency is actually tested, it’s easy to mislead yourself into thinking you understand more than you do. 

    • Rule 3: Always Start With A Concrete Example
        • Levels-of-processing effect ⇒ suggests that it isn’t simply how much time you spend paying attention to information that determines what you retain but, crucially how you think about that information while you pay attention to it.
        •  Feynman had a habit of developing a concrete instance of a problem which led to a deeper form of processing, which not only enhances later retention but also fosters an intuitive understanding.

          • This technique enables some feedback, because when it’s not possible to imagine an appropriate example, that’s evidence that you don’t understand something well enough and signals you should learn the material better.
      • Rule 4: Don’t Fool Yourself
        • “You’re the easiest person to fool”. He was deeply skeptical of his own understanding. 
        • The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when someone with inadequate understanding of a subject nonetheless believes he or she possesses more knowledge about the subject than the people who actually do.
          • The more you learn about a subject, the more questions arise.
        • A lot of people lack the confidence to ask “dumb questions”
        • Explaining things clearly and asking “dumb” questions can keep you from fooling yourself into thinking you know something you don’t. 

      The Feynman Technique

      • The purpose of the Feynman Technique is to help develop intuition about the ideas you are learning. 
        • It can be used when you don’t understand an idea at all or simply when you understand something a little but really want to turn it into a deep intuition. 



      1. Write down the concept or problem you want to understand at the top of a piece of paper
      2. In the space below, explain the idea as if you had to teach it to someone else. 
        1. If it’s a concept, ask yourself how you would convey the idea to someone who has never heard of it before.
        2. If it’s a problem, explain how to solve it and - crucially - why that solution procedure makes sense to you.
      3. When you get stuck, meaning your understanding fails to provide a clear answer, go back to your reference material to find the answer.


      Application 1: For Things You Don’t Understand At All 

      • Go back in forth between your explanation and the one in the book
      • It can often be essential when the explanation you’ve been given baffles you.

      Application 2: For Problems You Can’t Seem To Solve 

      • Very important to go through the problem step by step alongside the explanation you generate, rather than simply summarizing it.
      • Summarizing may end up skipping over the core difficulties of the problem.  

      Application 3: For Expanding Your Intuition 

      • A final way to apply this method is to ideas that are so important that it would really help if you had great intuition about them.
      • Instead of focusing on explaining every detail or going along with the source material, you should try to focus on generating illustrative examples, analogies, or visualizations that would make the idea comprehensible to someone who has learned far less than you have.  

      Principle 9: Experimentation

      • Vincent Van Gogh (a late bloomer in the art world) would identify a learning resource, method, or style and pursue it intensely. Afterwards, he would apply himself to a new resource, method, or style and start again.  

      Experimentation Is The Key To Mastery

      • When starting to learn a new skill, often it’s sufficient simply to follow the example of someone who is further along than you.
      • As your skill develops, you eventually need to experiment and find your own path as there are fewer people you can learn from. 
      • Getting better increasingly becomes an act of unlearning. Not only must you learn to solve problems you couldn’t before, but you must also unlearn stale and ineffective approaches for solving those problems. 
      • Importance of experimentation as you approach mastery is that many skills reward not only proficiency but originality. 

      Three Types Of Experimentation

      Experimenting with Learning Resources

      • The first place to experiment is with the methods, materials, and resources you use to learn and apply it rigorously for a predetermined period of time.

      Experimenting with Technique

      • Pick some subtopic within the skill you’re trying to cultivate, spend some time learning it aggressively, and then evaluate your progress. 

      Experimenting with Style

      • Once you master the basics, there is no longer one “right” way to do everything but many different possibilities, all of which have different strengths and weaknesses

      • Fixed mindset ⇒ learners believe that their traits are fixed or innate and thus there’s no point in trying to improve them. 
      • Growth mindset ⇒ In contrast, learners see their own capacity for learning as something that can be actively improved. 


      How To Experiment

      Copy, Then Create
      • Copying simplifies the problem of experimentation somewhat because it gives you a starting point for making decisions. 
      • Advantage in attempting to emulate or copy an example you appreciate, you must deconstruct it to understand why it works.

      Compare Methods Side-By-Side


      • Scientific method works by carefully controlling conditions so that the difference between 2 situations is limited to the variable being controlled. You can apply this same process to your experiments in learning by trying 2 different approaches and varying only a single condition to see what the impact is.
      • 2 advantages to doing split tests:
        • You’ll get much better information about which method works best if you limit the variation to only the factor you want to test. 
        • By solving a problem multiple ways or applying multiple solution styles to it, you will increase the breadth of expertise.
        • Once you learn something, you get stuck in your habits. A powerful technique for pushing out of those grooves of routine is by introducing new constraints that make the old methods impossible to use. 

      • For many areas of creative or professional skills, a path is to combine 2 skills that don’t necessarily overlap to bring about a distinct advantage that those who specialize in only one of those skills do not have. 

      • For many skills, the best option is going to be extreme in some way, since so many more of the possibilities are themselves extreme. 

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