Ultralearning, page 1
Chapter I: Can You Get an MIT Education Without Going to MIT?
Chapter II: Why Ultralearning Matters
Chapter III: How to Become an Ultralearner
Chapter IV: Principle 1—Metalearning: First Draw a Map
Chapter V: Principle 2—Focus: Sharpen Your Knife
Chapter VI: Principle 3—Directness: Go Straight Ahead
Chapter VII: Principle 4—Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point
Chapter VIII: Principle 5—Retrieval: Test to Learn
Chapter IX: Principle 6—Feedback: Don’t Dodge the Punches
Chapter X: Principle 7—Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket
Chapter XI: Principle 8—Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up
Chapter XII: Principle 9—Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone
Chapter XIII: Your First Ultralearning Project
Chapter XIV: An Unconventional Education
About the Author
About the Publisher
My relationship with Scott Young began in mid-2013. On July 10, I sent him an email asking if he wanted to set up a call for the following month. We had met at a conference a few days earlier, and I was hoping he would be willing to continue the conversation.
“Possibly,” he replied. “I’ll be in Spain then, and the language-learning focus of my upcoming project may take precedence.”
It wasn’t the response I was hoping for, but it seemed reasonable. Managing calls while traveling internationally can be tricky, and I understood if he wanted to wait until he returned. However, I quickly found out that he would not be returning anytime soon, and it was not the time change nor a spotty internet connection that would postpone our conversation.
No, it would be hard to catch up with Scott because he was planning to speak no English for an entire year.
Thus began my introduction to Scott Young and his commitment to ultralearning. Over the next twelve months, I would trade sporadic emails with Scott as he traveled to Spain, Brazil, China, and Korea, and proceeded to become conversational in each of the respective languages along the way. He was true to his word: it was not until the following summer in 2014 that we carved out time to catch up regularly and began chatting with each other every few months.
I was always excited for my calls with Scott—primarily for selfish reasons. One of my core interests as a writer is the science of how to build good habits and break bad ones. Someone like Scott, who had so clearly mastered his own habits, was exactly the type of person who could teach me a thing or two. And that’s precisely what happened. I can scarcely remember finishing a call with Scott and not learning something during the previous hour.
That’s not to say his insight took me by surprise. Scott had already been on my radar by the time we met at that conference in 2013. He had catapulted to internet fame one year prior by learning the entire MIT undergraduate computer science curriculum and passing all of the final tests in less than a year—four years’ worth of classes in under twelve months. I had seen the TEDx Talk summarizing his experience, and I read a few of his articles on learning and self-improvement before tracking him down at the conference.
The idea of taking on an ambitious project—like studying MIT’s undergraduate curriculum in one year or learning a new language every three months—is inspirational to many people. I certainly found these bold projects fascinating. But there was something else about Scott’s projects that resonated with me on a deeper level: he had a bias toward action.
This is something I have always appreciated about Scott’s approach and something I believe you will appreciate as a reader of this book. He isn’t focused on simply soaking up knowledge. He is committed to putting that knowledge to use. Approaching learning with an intensity and commitment to action is a hallmark of Scott’s process. This approach speaks to me, in part, because I see similar patterns in my own life and career. Some of my most meaningful experiences have been the result of intense self-directed learning.
Although I didn’t know the word ultralearning at the time, one of my first ultralearning projects was photography. In late 2009, I moved to Scotland for a few months. It was my first time living abroad, and given the beautiful scenery throughout the Scottish Highlands, I figured I should buy a decent camera. What I hadn’t expected, however, was that I would fall in love with the process of taking photos. What followed was one of the most creative periods of my life.
I learned photography through a variety of methods. I studied the portfolios of famous photographers. I scouted locations and searched for compelling perspectives. But, most of all, I learned through one simple method: I took over 100,000 photos that first year. I never enrolled in a photography class. I didn’t read books on how to become a better photographer. I just committed to relentless experimentation. This “learning by doing” approach embodies one of my favorite chapters in this book and Scott’s third principle of ultralearning: directness.
Directness is the practice of learning by directly doing the thing you want to learn. Basically, it’s improvement through active practice rather than through passive learning. The phrases learning something new and practicing something new may seem similar, but these two methods can produce profoundly different results. Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practice creates skill.
This is a point that Scott more fully clarifies and refines in chapter 6: directness leads to skill development. You can research the best instructions on the bench press technique, but the only way to build strength is to practice lifting weights. You can read all of the bestselling sales books, but the only way to actually get customers is to practice making sales calls. Learning can be very useful, of course, but the danger is that the act of soaking up new facts can be disconnected from the process of refining a new skill. You can know every fact about an industry and still lack real-world expertise because you haven’t practiced the craft.
Scott understands the difficulty of actually learning new skills. I respect him not only for the quality of his writing but also for the simple fact that he is a practitioner of his own ideas. I can’t say enough about how important this is: he has skin in the game. Many ideas sound brilliant on paper but fail in the real world. As the saying goes, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.”*
As for my photography quest, it didn’t take long for my commitment to direct practice to pay off. A few months after I bought my camera, I traveled to Norway and ventured above the Arctic Circle to capture an image of the aurora borealis. Not long afterward, I was named a finalist for Travel Photographer of the Year thanks to that image of the Northern Lights. It was a surprising outcome, but also a testament to how much progress you can make during a short but intense period of learning.
I never pursued a career as a photographer. It was an ultralearning project I did for fun and personal satisfaction. But a few years later, right around the time I first met Scott, I began another period of intense learning with a more utilitarian outcome in mind: I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I figured writing would be one path that could get me there.
Once again, I had selected a domain where I had little formal experience. I had no entrepreneurs in my family, and I had taken only a single college English class. But as I read through Ultralearning, I was startled to find that Scott explained, in nearly step-by-step fashion, the process I followed to go from unproven entrepreneur to bestselling
Principle #1: Metalearning—I started by examining other popular bloggers and authors. Their methods helped me to create a map for what I needed to do to become a successful writer.
Principle #2: Focus—I went full-time as a writer nearly from the start. Aside from a few freelance projects I took on to pay the bills, the vast majority of my time was spent reading and writing.
Principle #3: Directness—I learned writing by writing. I set a schedule for myself to write a new article every Monday and Thursday. Over the first two years, I produced more than 150 essays.
Principle #4: Drill—I systematically broke down each aspect of writing articles—the headline, the introductory sentence, the transitions, the storytelling, and more—and put together spreadsheets filled with examples of each segment. Then I set about testing and refining my ability to perform each small aspect of the larger task.
Principle #6: Feedback—I personally emailed nearly all of my first ten thousand subscribers to say hello and to ask for feedback on my writing. It didn’t scale, but it taught me a lot in the beginning.
. . . and so on.
My point is that Scott’s method works. By following the techniques he lays out in this book, I was able to build a writing career, create a successful business, and, ultimately, write a New York Times bestselling book. When I released Atomic Habits, it was the culmination of years of work centered around the process of ultralearning.
I think it’s easy to hear stories about writing a bestselling book or learning four languages in a year and think, “That’s for other people.” I disagree. Learning something valuable and doing it fast doesn’t have to be confined to some narrow set of geniuses. It’s a process anyone can embrace. It’s just that most people never do it because they never had a playbook to show them how. Until now.
There are good reasons to pursue ultralearning—whether you are conducting a project for personal or professional interests.
First, deep learning provides a sense of purpose in life. Developing skills is meaningful. It feels good to get good at something. Ultralearning is a path to prove to yourself that you have the ability to improve and to make the most of your life. It gives you the confidence that you can accomplish ambitious things.
Second, deep learning is how you get outsized returns. The simple truth is most people will never intensely study your area of interest. Doing so—even if it’s just for a few months—will help you stand out. And once you stand out, you can get a better job, negotiate for a higher salary or more free time, network with more interesting people, and otherwise level up your personal and professional life. Ultralearning helps you develop leverage that you can use elsewhere.
Finally, deep learning is possible. Paul Graham, the famous entrepreneur and investor, once noted, “In many fields a year of focused work plus caring a lot would be enough.”* Similarly, I think most people would be surprised by what they could accomplish with a year (or a few months) of focused learning. The process of intense self-directed learning can fashion skills you never thought you could develop. Ultralearning can help you fulfill your potential, and that is perhaps the best reason of all to pursue it.
The truth is, despite the success of my writing and photography pursuits, these projects were haphazard. I did them intensely but without guidance or direction. I made a lot of mistakes. I wish I had this book when I was starting out. I can only imagine how much wasted time and energy I would have saved.
Ultralearning is a fascinating and inspiring read. Scott has compiled a gold mine of actionable strategies for learning anything faster. His effort is now your gain. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did, and, most important, I hope you use these ideas to accomplish something ambitious and exciting in your own life. With the stories and strategies Scott shares in this book, you will have the knowledge. All that is left is to take action.
Can You Get an MIT Education Without Going to MIT?
Only a few hours left. I caught myself glancing out the window as the early-morning light glittered off the buildings in front of me. It was a crisp fall day, surprisingly sunny for a famously rainy city. Well-dressed men carried briefcases and fashionable women pulled miniature dogs beneath my eleventh-story vantage point. Buses dragged reluctant commuters into town one last time before the weekend. The city might have been rousing from its slumber, but I had been awake since before dawn.
Now is not the time for daydreaming, I reminded myself and shifted my attention back to the half-finished math problems scribbled on the notebook in front of me. “Show that for any finite part of the unit sphere . . .” the problem began. The class was Multivariate Calculus for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The final exam would start soon, and I had little time left to prepare. What was curl, again . . . ? I closed my eyes and tried to form a picture of the problem in my head. There’s a sphere. I know that. I conjured a bright red ball in my mind’s eye, floating in empty space. Now what was n̂? The n̂ stands for normal, I reminded myself, meaning an arrow that points straight up from the surface. My red ball became furry, with hairlike vectors standing straight at all ends. But what about curl? My imagination turned to waves of tiny arrows pulsating in a vast sea. Curl marked the eddies, swirling around in little loops. I thought again to my furry, red ball with the static-charged hairdo. My fuzzy sphere had no whorls, so there must not be any curl, I reasoned. But how do I prove it? I scratched down some equations. Better double-check it. My mental pictures were clear, but my symbol manipulation was a lot sloppier. There wasn’t much time left, and every second of preparation counted. I needed to grind through as many problems as possible before time ran out.
That was nothing unusual for an MIT student. Tricky equations, abstract concepts, and difficult proofs are all a normal part of one of the most prestigious educations in math and science in the world. Except that I was not an MIT student. In fact, I had never even been to Massachusetts. All of this was taking place in my bedroom, twenty-five hundred miles away in Vancouver, Canada. And although an MIT student typically covers the entirety of multivariate calculus over a semester, I had started only five days before.
The MIT Challenge
I have never attended MIT. Instead, my college days were spent studying business at the University of Manitoba, a middle-ranked Canadian school I could actually afford. After graduating with a bachelor of commerce, I felt as though I had picked the wrong major. I wanted to be an entrepreneur and so had studied business, thinking that would be the best route to becoming my own boss. Four years later, I discovered that a business major was largely a finishing school for entrants into the world of big corporations, gray suits, and standard operating procedures. Computer science, in contrast, was a major where you actually learned to make things. Programs, websites, algorithms, and artificial intelligence were what had interested me in entrepreneurship in the first place, and I was struggling to decide what to do about it.
I could go back to school, I thought. Enroll again. Spend another four years working toward a second degree. But taking out student loans and giving up a half decade of my life to repeat the bureaucracy and rules of college didn’t seem very appealing. There had to be a better way to learn what I wanted.
Around that time, I stumbled across a class taught at MIT and posted online. It had fully recorded lectures, assignments, and quizzes; even the actual exams used in the real class with the solution keys were provided. I decided to try taking the class. To my surprise, I found that the class was much better than most of the classes I had paid thousands of dollars to attend in university. The lectures were polished, the professor was engaging, and the material was fascinating. Digging further, I could see that this wasn’t the only class MIT offered for free. MIT had uploaded the materials from hundreds of different classes. I wondered if this could be the solution to my problem. If anyone could learn the content of an MIT class for free, would it be possible to learn the content of an entir
Thus began almost six months of intense research into a project I named the MIT Challenge. I looked up the actual MIT curriculum for computer science undergrads. I matched and compared the list with the resources MIT offered online. Unfortunately, that was a lot easier said than done. MIT’s OpenCourseWare, the platform used for uploading class material, had never been intended as a substitute for attending the school. Some classes simply weren’t offered and needed to be swapped out. Others had such scant material that I wondered if they would even be possible to complete. Computation Structures, one of the required courses, which taught how to build a computer from scratch using circuits and transistors, had no recorded lectures or assigned textbook. To learn the class content, I would have to decipher abstract symbols written on a slideshow meant to accompany the lecture. Missing materials and ambiguous evaluation criteria meant that doing every class exactly as an MIT student would was out of the question. However, a simpler approach might work: just try to pass the final exams.
This focus on final exams later expanded to include programming projects for the classes that had them. These two criteria formed the skeleton of an MIT degree, covering most of the knowledge and skills I wanted to learn, with none of the frills. No mandatory attendance policy. No due dates on assignments. The final exams could be taken whenever I was ready and retaken with an alternate exam if I happened to fail one. Suddenly what had initially seemed like a disadvantage—not having physical access to MIT—became an advantage. I could approximate the education of an MIT student for a fraction of the cost, time, and constraints.
Exploring this possibility further, I even did a test class using the new approach. Instead of showing up to prescheduled lectures, I watched downloaded videos for the class at twice the normal speed. Instead of meticulously doing each assignment and waiting weeks to learn my results, I could test myself on the material one question at a time, quickly learning from my mistakes. Using these and other methods, I found I could scrape through a class in as little as a week’s time. Doing some quick calculations and adding some room for error, I decided it might be possible to tackle the remaining thirty-two classes in under a year.
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