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Ultralearning - by Scott Young

Notes #

Foreword by James Clear #

  • Learning something new is different from practicing something new
    • “He isn’t focused on simply soaking up knowledge. He is committed to putting that knowledge to use.”
    • “I never pursued a career as a photographer. It was an ultralearning project I did for fun and personal satisfaction.”
      • [What things do I do for fun?]
  • Be a practitioner of one’s own ideas.

I can’t say enough about how important this is: he has skin in the game… Many ideas sound brilliant on paper game, 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.”

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. [How do I do my work with more direction?]

Can You Get an MIT Education Without Getting to MIT? #

  • “There had to be a better way to learn what I wanted.”
    • [Always think about if there is a better way to achieve what we want, besides what everyone else is doing.]

While I had timidly been trying to pick up some French, worrying about saying the wrong things and being embarrassed by my insufficient vocabulary, Lewis was fearless, diving straight into conversations and setting seemingly impossible challenges for himself. [Easier said than done, but can be practiced. Not something we’ll do great the first time. Every practice is a vote.]

In the space of linguistic feats alone, I have encountered hyperpolyglots who speak forty-plus languages, adventurer-anthropologists who can start speaking previously unknown languages after a few hours of exposure, and many other travelers, like Lewis, who hop from tourist visa to tourist visa, mastering new languages. [Broaden our horizon by seeing what other people can do]

He knew that if he didn’t follow through with his own vision, that improved version would never be a reality. [Start a business or do things because otherwise it won’t exist. Balaji said something similar in the podcast with David Perell]

When he encountered a difficulty in his art, he broke it down: “I asked, ‘What goal do I want to reach?’ and then ‘How might I get there??” [Focus on solving problems, not judging yourself]

Because this project was my own vision and design, it rarely felt painful, even if it was often challenging. [Feel the same for my writing]

I was already happy working as a writer online, which had supported me financially throughout my project and would continue to do so afterward. (p. 17) [How did he share his learning?]

Why Ultralearing Matters #

ULTRALEARNING: A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense. [Why is intensity important? How do I bring more intensity to my learning?]

How to Become an Ultralearner #

Once, when faced with the choice between polishing an existing speech and creating a brand-new one from scratch, de Montebello asked what he should do. Gender’s response was to do whichever was scariest for him. [Do what scare you the most.]

Principle 1: Metalearning #

Learning this property of Chinese characters is meta-learning—not learning about the object of your inquiry itself, in this case words and phrases, but learning about how knowledge is structured and acquired within this subject; in other words, learning how to learn.

Ultralearning is a skill, just like riding a bicycle. The more practice you get with it, the more skills and knowledge you’ll pick up for how to do it well. [A lot of things are skills that need to be practiced]

If you’re pursuing a project for mostly instrumental reasons, it’s often a good idea to do an additional step of research: determining whether learning the skill or topic in question will actually help you achieve your goal. … The main way you can do research of this kind is to talk to people who have already achieved what you want to achieve. … The key is to write a simple, to-the-point email, explaining why you’re reaching out to them and asking if they could spare fifteen minutes to answer some simple questions.

Concepts, facts, and procedures

  • Write these down on a sheet of paper with three columns

Concepts are ideas that you need to understand in flexible ways in order for them to be useful. Facts are anything that suffices if you can remember them at all. You don’t need to understand them too deeply, so long as you can recall them in the right situations. Procedures are actions that need to be performed and may not involve much conscious thinking at all.

  • Understand the concepts, facts, and procedures that are most challenging. Research ways to overcome these difficulties.
    • [Plan for obstacles.]

Emphasize/Exclude Method

  1. Identify areas that most align with your goals
  2. Omit or delay those that don’t

Aim for ~10% of your total expected learning time do research. “Prior to starting my MIT Challenge, I spent roughly six months, part-time, combing through all the course materials.” [Similar to spending more time deciding on your career, suggested by 80000 hours]

Principle 2: Focus #

  • The struggle with focus come in three aspects: starting, sustaining, and optimizing the quality.
  • Why do we procrastinate? We crave for something else, or an aversion to the task itself, or both.
    • [Kind of like the category from buddhism: attachment or aversion.]
  • “Much procrastination is unconscious. You’re procrastinating, but you don’t internalize it that way.”
    • [Being honest with oneself is not just about honesty or courage, but also the wisdom to see things clearly.]
  • Those craving or aversions are simple impulses that don’t last long.

When I was learning Chinese characters through flash cards, for instance, I’d always feel an urge to give up whenever I couldn’t remember the answer to one of my cards. I knew this feeling was temporary, however, so I added a rule for myself: I can only quit when I’ve remembered the most recent card correctly. In practice, the cards were quick, so this usually only took an extra twenty or thirty seconds of persistence; however, my patience for doing flash cards went up dramatically as a result.

Principle 3: Directness #

Still, Jaiswal suspected that his struggles could be blamed on more than just the recession. [Some people just don’t complain but find ways to get what they want]

  • Most people avoid directly learning the thing because it’s uncomfortable, boring, or frustrating.

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 uncomfortable, boring, or frustrating, so we settle for some book, lecture, or app, hoping it will eventually make us better at the real thing. [Learn to read TE: Why pay someone to look up the words for you?]

During the MIT Challenge, I recognized that the most important resource for being able to eventually pass the classes wasn’t having access to recorded lectures, it was having access to problem sets. [Interesting. Remember you goal — if you want to be a baseball player, practice playing baseball.]

  • People do those because they think the learning will transfer—study in one situation and apply it to a new one. But that’s not going to happen automatically.

“Despite the importance of transfer of learning, research findings over the past nine decades clearly show that as individuals, and educational institutions, we have failed to achieve transfer of learning on any significant level.” He later added, “Without exaggeration, it’s an education scandal.” — Psychologist Robert Haskell (Transfer of Learning, Cambridge, MA: Academic Press, 2000, xiii)

  • Instead, tie what we learn directly to the contexts we want to use them in. [Like in Altered Traits, “what gets practiced gets improved.”]

Principle 4: Drill #

  • Direct-Then-Drill Approach [Same as how I was taught to learn instruments]

Principle 5: Retrieval #

If the learning task feels easy and smooth, we are more likely to believe we’ve learned it. If the task feels like a struggle, we’ll feel we haven’t learned it yet. [Thinking fast and slow —we always confuse things when making decision — feelings are not reliable.]

  • How do you decide what to remember (i.e. what to practice retrieval)?
    • What is more relevant to you — “Modal Logic… I have no plans to be a logician… eight years later, I couldn’t prove theorems in modal logic today. However, I can tell you what modal logic is for and when it is used, so if a situation arises in which the techniques I learned in that class might be useful, I’d have a much better time spotting it.”
    • In practice, it means doing direct practice.
  • But you can’t use a technique if you don’t know such thing exists.
    • “Often the thing separating mediocre 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.”
    • Simply reading about it is not enough — mostly likely we’ll forget it — such kind of breadth can benefit from retrieval practice.

Principle 6: Feedback #

Principle 7: Retention #

Because of the fact that procedural knowledge is stored for longer, this may suggest a useful heuristic. Instead of learning a large volume of knowledge or skills evenly, you may emphasize a core set of information much more frequently, so that it becomes procedural and is stored far longer. p. 168

Principle 8: Intuition #

Principle 9: Experimentation #

As your skill develops, it’s often no longer enough to simply follow the examples of others; you need to experiment and find your own path. p. 203

Whereas the growth mindset encourages you to see potential for improvement, experimentation enacts a plan to reach those improvements. p. 208

Your First Ultralearning Project #

An Unconventional Education #

If you finish reading this book and have been encouraged to try your own project, this would be my greatest hope—not that you’d be successful at your project but that your ending would be a beginning. That by opening a small crack in all the possibly knowable things there are in the world, you might peer through and find there is far, far more than you had ever imagined. p. 257