Many of us want to learn a new skill or master a new area of expertise, either to further or change our career or simply for the sake of personal fulfillment. But going deep in a subject seems like it would take a long time, and even require going back to school, something most of us don’t have the time, money, and desire to do.
My guest today says there’s another way. His name is Scott Young and he’s the author of Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career. We begin our conversation with Scott’s successful experiment of doing all the course work for a computer science degree from MIT in less than a year and for free and how this opened Scott up to the idea of “ultralearning.” We then discuss the economic benefits of learning how to learn, as well as the personal benefits that come from mastering new skills as adults. In the second half of our conversation, we get into the practical techniques of the ultralearning method, including creating a plan for your learning project, choosing active over passive learning, and drilling effectively. Scott and I end our discussion with how to figure out what feedback to listen to and what to ignore as you’re learning a new project.
- The MIT challenge Scott set for himself
- The unconventional ways people have taught themselves impressive skills
- Why the ability to learn things is such an important skill
- What is skill polarization?
- The non-economic benefits of learning how to learn quickly
- How do you take on big learning projects with the constraints of time, family, money, etc.?
- What is meta-learning?
- The expert interview method
- Why having a specific project in mind helps you along your learning pathway
- Direct learning vs passive learning
- How to make drilling more effective and more efficient
- The value of testing yourself (even before you’ve really learned anything)
- How an ultralearner handles critical feedback
- What sort of project should you start with?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Learning How to Learn
- How and Why to Become a Lifelong Learner
- Become a More Competent Human Through Micromastery
- Fluent in 3 months
- Faster and Cheaper Alternatives to College
- The Science of Self-Motivation and Productivity
- Become a Self-Starter
- How to Learn Another Language
- The Value of Deep Work in the Age of Distraction
- Desirable difficulty
Connect With Scott
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, many of us want to learn a new skill or master a new area of expertise, either to further our career or simply for the sake of personal fulfillment. But going deep into subject seems like it would take a lot of time and even require going back to school, something most of us don’t have the time, money and desire to do so.
My guest today say there’s another way. His name is Scott Young, and he’s the author of Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition and Accelerate Your Career.
We begin our conversation with Scott’s successful experiment of doing all the coursework for a Computer Science degree from MIT in less than a year and for free. And how this opened up Scott to the idea of ultralearning. We then discuss the economic benefits of learning how to learn, as well as the personal benefits that come from mastering new skills as adults.
In the second half of our conversation, we get into the practical techniques of the ultralearning method, including creating a plan for your learning project, choosing active over passive learning, and drilling effectively.
Scott and I end our conversation with how to figure out what feedback to listen to and what to ignore as you’re learning a new project.
After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/ultralearning. Scott joins me now via ClearCast.io.
All right, Scott Young, welcome to the show.
Scott Young: Oh, it’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: So I’ve been following your work on your blog about … and you’ve been writing about learning and how to become a better learner, for man, over 10 years now. So since 2006.
Scott Young: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And you finally have taken all the stuff you’ve been writing about, researching about on your own and put it into a book. It’s called Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition and Accelerate Your Career.
In the book you start off describing a learning project that you took on that was pretty ambitious. You decided to earn an MIT Computer Science degree on your own in less than a year. So tell us about this MIT challenge you set for yourself.
Scott Young: Sure. Yeah, so this was a project I took on in 2011, so already a ways back. I had just graduated from business school, and I was feeling at the time like I’d kind of picked the wrong thing to study. I don’t know if anyone listening here has ever felt that where you spend a bunch of time in school and you’re like, “Oh, that’s what I really should have been doing.” The problem is that when you already have a degree, going back to school for another four years feels like maybe not the best use of your time and probably not the best use of your money. And so I was sort of debating in my head, “Do I really want to do this? Do I really want to extend out my length of time in the higher education system?”
And around this time I was sort of online just sort of fiddling around, and I found this class that was posted by MIT online for free. Anyone can access these. These are MIT’s OpenCourseWare, and I took the class and I was really impressed. I was like, “Wow, this is a much better class than the classes I remember taking in school.” Not only that, it wasn’t just one class. There were many classes. So this kind of got the gears turning a little bit that I was thinking in my head, “Has anyone ever tried to use the resources that MIT puts online for free to do something that approximates what an MIT student would learn when they’re doing an undergraduate degree?” And so I put together a curriculum trying to mix and match to try to get as close as possible to what an MIT student would take. And then I decided for simplicity’s sake to focus on trying to pass the final exams and do the programming projects.
One of the things that I found going through this process, and as you mentioned, I’d already been writing a little bit about learning online, so I’d already kind of had this idea of learning efficiently and studying effectively even before I started the project. But when you have complete flexibility, you have the option to do some things that maybe a normal student couldn’t do. For instance, if you watch a lecture … I know people who listen to podcasts are probably aware of this … you can listen to it at 1.5 times the speed and because you can listen to it at 1.5 times the speed, you can maybe take all the lectures in a couple of days instead of spending four months.
Or if you’re working on assignments, normally you have to finish the whole assignment, you get stuck on some problems, you don’t know the answer, you leave them blank, you have to hand them in, and then you wait a week or two. And then you get your answers back. Whereas if you’re doing it at home, you could do one at a time and just when you get stuck, you check the solution and you get that quick feedback. So you can learn in some cases more effectively without having to go through school even if you’re using the same kinds of resources.
With these sorts of ideas in mind plus quite a bit of work if I’m being frank, I decided I wanted to try to do it in 12 months. So this was sort of my first big ultralearning project, but as I talk about in the book, there’s a lot of people who have done I think probably more impressive projects and more interesting projects. And so I wanted to write this book to not just talk about people who try to learn facsimiles of a degree really quickly, but rather I wanted to focus on people who have mastered the art of learning hard skills because even if you don’t want to go back to school, even if you don’t care about getting MIT classes and learning Math and Computer Science and that kind of thing, there’s probably something that you want to get good at. There’s probably a skill that would improve your life, your career, and knowing the essence of how to do that in the most effective way possible has been a big mission of mine in writing in my blog and then certainly in writing this book.
Brett McKay: So did you successfully complete the MIT challenge to get your Computer Science degree?
Scott Young: Yes, I did. I finished the last class just before the 12-month mark in the whole process. So there was 33 classes. I did one class earlier as a test class, so I did 32 in that 12-month period of time.
Brett McKay: As you talk about in the book, as you started this MIT project where you were taking these courses and trying to finish them really fast and you’re studying, going deep and being really intense with your studies, you found other people, like you mentioned, who were doing the same thing, who were mastering new skills and domains of knowledge in a short amount of time. Tell us about some of these folks that you’ve come across since the MIT project and since you started writing this book.
Scott Young: Yeah, so actually my kind of inspiration for taking on this project was from meeting a fellow named Benny Lewis. So this is a couple years before I did the MIT challenge. I was a student and I had the opportunity to study abroad for a year in France, and I thought it would be so cool to come back speaking French. I thought I’d really like to spend this year and come back and speak another language.
And I was in France for a couple months, maybe three or four months, and it was really difficult. I didn’t feel like my French was progressing that much. I didn’t feel like I could have conversations with people, and I felt that most of the people around me, they just spoke in English even if they could speak in French.
I was a little bit discouraged, and I was sort of chatting about this with a friend from home and he was like, “Have you heard of Benny Lewis?” And I was like, “No. Who’s Benny Lewis?” And so Benny Lewis has a website very modestly titled, Fluent in 3 Months. It is about his quest to try to become fluent in a language in as little as three months. He would do these challenges where he goes to a country, where he only has three months because that’s how long his visa was, and try to learn as much as possible. And sure enough, he’s posting videos at the end of it of him having little conversations with people, which I was super impressed by because I’d been in France for longer than three months and I couldn’t do that.
This was sort of the first time someone had kind of pointed me out to the idea that there are rather unconventional ways to approach learning that are often a lot faster or more effective than the ways that we’re taught in school. He was one example.
Another example was another old-school blogger was Steve Pavlina, who did a Computer Science and Math double major over three semesters. Again, this was through actual school. It wasn’t at a time when MIT OpenCourseWare was available. But he did it by allocating his schedule and optimizing the aspects of studying and doing that kind of thing. I’d already had some of these indications that this kind of thing might be possible before I did my challenge, but then after of course, once you do something, you say, hey have you heard of so-and-so, have you heard of so-and-so.
I’ve gotten the chance to hear many fantastic stories. People like Eric Barone, who built a million dollar video game business. He just learned all the aspect of video game design and built a best-selling game. People like Roger Craig, who really studied the process for getting good at trivia and won hundreds of thousands of dollars in Jeopardy. Or people like Tristan de Montebello, who I even worked with him on his project, where over seven months he went from having near zero experience public speaking to being a finalist for the world championship of public speaking.
Brett McKay: And with these people, were they doing things similar? They’ve sort of cracked the code without knowing that there was a code to learning things quickly?
Scott Young: Yeah. So some of them I think were quite aware of the learning principles involved. So Roger Craig, for instance, was a Computer Science PhD student when he was doing his project, and he was already a really big fan of what are known as spaced repetition systems and spacing effects. So he was aware of this kind of learning principles, the kind that I discuss in the book.
That isn’t to say that most people do. I was never taught these subjects in school, and it turns out they’re very important for learning well. But other people I feel like they just kind of happen upon the right combinations of principles by chance. Even for me researching this book, having done a number of projects that I document in the story, even when I started doing the research, there was still new things that I was finding out.
So I think it’s kind of difficult that a lot of times we don’t even realize that we’re doing things that work well with how the brain learns things. And sometimes we’re doing things that don’t work well, we don’t realize it. We spend months and months banging our head against the wall so to speak, and then it’s going through that process and that frustration no one ever says, “Oh no, you needed to do it this way if you actually wanted to master this skill.” And I think that’s particularly true for the kinds of skills that are outside of school.
We have, for most of us, at least 12 years of experience going through the school system, and so we have some familiarity with taking tests and studying and that kind of thing. But if I plopped you down and say, “Okay you need to become a great writer or public speaker or programmer even though you never studied that before, how will you set up a project to do that,” I think a lot of people would give you a pretty blank stare. And so I think that exposing those principles of how it works was a big goal of my book because they just don’t teach you how to learn in school.
Brett McKay: Right. So you call this strategy of learning things, not even just learning … we’re talking about mastery here. It’s not just you listen to all the MIT courses. You actually took the test to show that you learned what you’re supposed to learn. You’ve got to be able to have a conversation at the end of three months, so it’s mastery. But you do it in a quick amount of time. You call this ultralearning. Why do you think this ability to learn things is such an important skill to have? Especially in the 21st century.
Scott Young: Right. I think we’re seeing a lot of different trends that are all coming together on the direction of being able to take charge of your own mastery, if we can say, your own ability to learn things is going to become increasingly important. One of the trends is just simply in the economy itself.
We’re noticing something that the MIT economist, David Author, calls skill polarization. Basically what this means is that we all kind of hear in the background of the news that income inequality’s rising and this is creating all these problems. But there’s actually a little bit more nuance picture. That it’s not simply that the income spectrum is just getting stretched out.
It’s actually getting stretched out at the top but compressed at the bottom. So the way to visualize this is if you imagine this sort of line of all the people earning different incomes, it’s a little bit like the middle class, the people in the middle, are getting squeezed to the two extremes. Some of them are becoming richer, but some of them are getting pushed back down and they’re getting compressed into the bottom. Because of this effect and what’s happening, it seems to be that the reason for this is due to the fact that computers, automation, and indeed also things like outsourcing and moving jobs overseas, has created an effect where a lot of the jobs that you could have done in your parents’ age, maybe your grandfather’s age, that you could have just stuck your nose to the grindstone, done that job your whole life, gotten a decent salary, had a nice house, had a car, lived well on that salary. A lot of those jobs are disappearing. And what they’re being replaced with are jobs that are more difficult, require more skill and often more education.
And this is also the thing that’s driving the second trend, which is that education, everyone is getting more degrees now, so at the same time they’re becoming kind of less valuable. We all know that it used to be the case that you could have maybe a two year’s degree and that you could get a good job and then you needed to have a full Bachelor Degree. And now a lot of people are saying you basically need a Master’s to do sort of serious professional work. And so this kind of credential inflation is just because people recognize that you need to have education and there’s more people going into it. In the rush of all these new people coming in, how have schools responded? Well, they’ve jacked up tuition prices and college now costs way, way more than it used to. In addition to being somewhat less valuable for getting a good career, college is now more and more expensive in obtaining it.
I think the combination of these things means that we live in a world where you need to have good skills, you need to be good at things for your career to be successful. But at the same time, a lot of the traditional options for acquiring that kind of knowledge, they’re not really cutting it. They’re not really making the grade. I think that being able to take control and learn skills on your own, whether that’s to improve your current career or switch careers or even just to add an additional skill that you want to learn, I think that’s going to be incredibly important.
Brett McKay: And companies have also responded to this changing environment. Before, like you said, to get a job at a good company you’d have to have a degree to show. That’s how it is mostly. But there are some companies like Google, sometimes they don’t even care if you have a degree. They just want to see do you have the skill. And so if you can show them a learning project, where you’re like, “Hey, I did this thing. I made a video game,” they’ll take you on.
Scott Young: Yeah. I think the right way to think about it is a lot of people want to talk about it either-or. They want to say going to college versus not going to college. A lot of the people I think who are listening to this podcast right now, you’ve already been through school. You’ve kind of already done what you were going to do in the education system. Maybe you’ve got some idea in the back of your head that maybe you’ll go back to get a Master’s or an MBA or something, but you’ve already done whatever school you’re going to do. You’re already working if you’re in that situation. And if you’re in that situation, for a lot of people the idea of going back to school doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It’s going to take off years of your life, you’re going to lose a lot of money, you’re going to lose a lot of opportunities. And maybe not even increase your job opportunities that much when you’re done after you’ve been saddled with a lot of debt.
And so for people in this situation I think it makes way more sense before you first plan out which school you’re going to attend to figure out is there a way that I can get the skills that will get me hired or promoted or get me on the kind of work that I want on my own. I even documented people in the book that have done things like this, that have transitioned in new careers or advanced their careers or accelerated them by taking on these kinds of learning projects.
Brett McKay: And besides the economic benefit, being able to learn things quickly, master things quickly, definitely makes you more marketable in the job place. But have you found other benefits that come from having the ability to learn things quickly?
Scott Young: Well, so the funny thing is when I’ve talked to people who’ve done projects like this, the economic benefits are rarely the things that they harp on even though obviously to a lot of ordinary people that would be the thing that really matters. That you got a big raise or you got a better career or you launched a business.
But when I talk to people about it, I think the thing that strikes people who really dive deep into this is that you feel like there’s a lot more possibilities for your life. For a lot of us I think we have this feeling of being stuck, of being kind of straitjacketed into the roles that we’re in, the skills that people think we have, what they think we’re good at and sometimes that’s great. You love your job and people think you’re good at that job and that’s a perfect fit. But other times you feel like, “Ah, maybe I wish I did study something different. Maybe I wish I could do something different. Maybe I wish that I could speak another language or play an instrument or know how to program or paint or any of those skills.” But we just don’t really know the right way to get good at it.
And so when people do these kinds of projects where they see progress in a relatively short period of time and they see what it really takes to learn something well, I feel like the world kind of opens up a little bit and there’s so many more options than were there before.
Brett McKay: So this MIT project was your first one and this sort of opened your eyes, “Yeah, this is possible to master a skill quickly.” Did that catapult you to go after and master other skills?
Scott Young: Yeah. After I finished that project I was super excited and not so much even just about computer science and doing things the kind of way of trying to simulate what they teach in school, although obviously I think that was very exciting as well. But just the idea of if you apply this mindset and the strategies and the tools that I was using to other subjects, other things you were trying to learn.
My next project I was doing was actually kind of going back to my first initial exposure to these sorts of ideas. Benny Lewis, who was doing these projects where he was learning languages in a short period of time, I started thinking about what he was doing, and I started thinking about my own experience trying to learn French. And after that year of working there and following some of Benny Lewis’ advice, I was able to get to a point where I could have conversations. But I recognize that much more was possible. That if I had structured the project in the right way from the beginning, I might have gotten better a lot faster than it actually took me to learn French.
I discussed with a friend and we decided to do a project, after much discussion, that I call the year without English. We went to four countries … Spain, Brazil, China and South Korea … to learn Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese and Korean. And the idea of the project is that when we arrived in each country, we got off the plane, we would not speak in English to each other or to anyone that we would meet. As a result, we would only be speaking the language that we were trying to learn. So that meant that not only were we getting lots of practice time, so we were actually going to accelerate the ability to learn these languages. But at the same time whenever we would meet people, they would know to speak to us in that language because one of the big disadvantages of learning a new language when you already know one is that it’s almost always easier to use your native language. And so that becomes a big obstacle not only to practicing the language you’re trying to learn, but indeed even making friends with people who speak that language because a lot of people go overseas and they make friends with a bunch of expats who all speak English.
We did this process, and I would say that for me personally … you can go to my website and judge the results for yourself … but for me personally I was blown away that I didn’t even think that we would be able to approach the level that we did. I was thinking okay well maybe it’ll be a struggle and after three months we’ll be finally getting to a point where we can real conversations and interactions with people, but it’ll be maybe a difficult grind. And I found that in Spain at the very least, we were having friends, going on dates, really living our lives in even a much shorter time than that. About a month, month-and-a-half. For me, I would say that that was another eye-opening experience that the way we typically think about learning languages where it takes years and years in school is probably far from the most efficient approach.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about the time factor in this before we get into the principles. In your experiences, you were able to take on these learning projects when you’re in those sort of transitory periods in your young life. Right after college and you had some free time, so you’re able to go deep. Did you find people who had jobs, families, who were still able to take on learning projects and master them relatively quickly?
Scott Young: Absolutely. I think it’s important and worth saying because I think a lot of times when people see a project like this, they’re like, “Oh, that sounds really cool, but yeah I could never do anything like that. I have a job. I have kids. I have family commitments. I maybe only have a couple hours a week at most. I don’t have 80 hours a week. I don’t have an extreme time commitment.” And I think in these situations I think what’s important to point out is that when I talk about kind of the strategies and the principles for learning, one of them isn’t spend 100 hours a week. In fact, there’s even some evidence that spending a smaller amount of time per week spread over a longer period of time is actually more efficient, more effective. In some ways the research actually points in the opposite direction.
Rather, what I think is that the right way to think about it is what are you doing with each moment that you spend that you’re trying to learn. Already, you’re probably reading books, you’re listening to this podcast, you’re trying to learn things right now, and so there are adjustments you can make to the time you already spend. And at the same time, there’s also maybe small little part-time projects you can do.
One guy that I remember talking to in the research, he was a programmer. He was doing database programming, and he wanted to improve on his career. I think he was working for an airline company. And he decided, “I’m just going to wake up a little bit earlier,” and he was going to for his particular project he was going to make these online quizzes for the database language that he was doing. And the nice thing about this is that the quizzes forced him to think of fairly detailed questions that maybe don’t come up in his everyday work. So he really had to master the programming language he was using. And it turns out that not only did he master that skill and he got really good with the database language, but it also allowed him to interact with some people who were very prestigious in that sort of niche of that particular language of database programming. And he ended up getting a new job with a raise, and it was sort of his dream job and this kind of thing.
This is an example of a pretty small project. It’s not going to make headline news, but I think it’s an example of where applying a concentrated burst of learning at a very specific purpose can have out sized results for the amount of time you spend even if it’s not 40 hours a week.
Brett McKay: All right. So let’s dig into these principles of ultralearning that you uncovered based on your own experience and your research for the book. The first one I think is really important because I think it sort of gets people thinking about learning a different way and it’s meta learning. What do you mean by meta learning?
Scott Young: Meta learning is, basically when you use meta before a word, typically what you mean is that it’s about itself. So meta learning is another way of saying learning about learning. This is extremely important when you’re taking on a project that you are going to be initiating and managing yourself because the one advantage that school does have is that someone who knows the subject designed the curriculum. They decided okay, well first you need to learn this and then you need to learn that and then you learn some other thing.
There is problems with this. I think that often schools will emphasize subjects that maybe the teacher thinks is important or because this is what they’ve always taught, and it’s not necessarily what’s going to get you to your result the fastest. It doesn’t mean that just because someone’s made it a curriculum, that they necessarily know the best way for you to learn for your particular goals.
But at the same time, it is a challenge because if I said to you right now, “Okay, you’re going to have to learn something really difficult.” You’re going to have to learn machine learning, let’s say. You might feel, “Well, I have no idea how to learn that. I don’t know anything about that subject. Where do you even start?”
The first point is to start doing a little bit of research, and this can be just as simple as Googling how do I learn this subject. I know that sounds pretty brainless. But you just Google that and you spend half an hour, an hour, maybe even two hours just looking at the results. You will start to find books, resources, you’ll find reviews of what people have said about their experience using those different tools to learn in. You’ll learn about different methods. And you’ll also start to get a better idea of what’s involved in learning that skill. So, that’s a very important kind of very first touchpoint.
I often recommend if you’re serious about learning or if you are thinking that you want to learn something to improve your career, let’s say, that you go a step further and do what I call the expert interview method. And this is where you pick someone who’s already learned the skill that you want to learn or alternatively, if you’re trying to use the skill to accomplish something, get a new job, get a promotion, et cetera, then find someone who has the role that you want and basically interview them and ask them how did they acquire the skill and what steps did they take to get where they are today. And this can often also reveal sort of what might be necessary, what are the difficulties, what are the things that they would have done that would have allowed them to get those skills. And it doesn’t mean you have to go down exactly the same path, but it gives you a sense of what is the default approach for getting good at this thing.
Brett McKay: I think one thing to start off is just have a definite goal in mind. That’s one thing I noticed through all the examples, your own and the people you highlight in the book, they had a specific goal of a skill mastery they’re trying to go after. If you’re just saying, “I want to learn machine learning,” that’s tough. But if you said, “Okay, I want to learn machine learning so I can do X project,” well that’ll help you fine tune what you need to actually learn to do X thing.
Scott Young: Yeah, and that’s one of the things that I think is really underrated just generally talking about this is actually having a project. I know that sounds kind of wow, okay a project, whatever. But when I talk to people about their actual learning efforts, the reason that they fail is not usually because they’re doing something wildly inefficient, although that does sometimes happen. But rather it’s just kind of, “Well, I was thinking about learning the piano and then nothing happened.” Or, “I was thinking about learning programming and then I just started doing it a little bit and then nothing happened.”
So I think the problem in a lot of these situations is that there’s actually no project there. There’s just sort of a vague feeling that you’d like to learn something or like to get better at something. And so what a project separates is that you actually decide, “Okay, I want to learn this thing. How am I going to learn it? What resources am I going to use? How am I going to spend my time? What am I going to be doing to learn it?” And I think if you even just go through that process of thinking of what should be in the project, you’re going to be miles ahead of most people who just have sort of a vague notion that they want to learn something.
Brett McKay: Right. As you were talking, it made me think of … we’ve been talking a lot about skills, like speaking a foreign language, learning computer science, but you could do this for things like, “I want to learn about World War II history.” Instead of just reading World War II history books randomly say, “I’m going to write a paper about X thing by this time of year,” or, “I’m going to give a lecture somewhere about World War II history,” because that will direct your learning even more.
Scott Young: Well, yeah, that was actually one of the people that I worked with when I was working on the book. He wanted to do a project that was going to be somewhat the equivalent of a Master’s in military history. And so obviously we’re not talking about a super practical subject here unless he’s going to go back and build some chariots or something. This is very much a theoretical project. In these kinds of projects, it often just comes down to … well, you do have to do a lot of reading … there’s no way around it for something like military history. But often it was making these kind of touchpoints of how do I know that I’ve learned what I’ve learned? And so he decided that how he was going to structure it is doing these sort of book reviews and then building towards having some kind of thesis paper.
And so this is closer to what you would actually do in a Master’s program and for good reason. If you do this kind of work where you’re producing something, it forces you to think about it much more deeply than if you just check, read that book. Check, read that book.
I think that a lot of people could apply a similar mentality to doing learning for all sorts of subjects. What if you wanted to do your own version of an MBA? Then you could figure out, okay what are the things that people learn in an MBA, and how will I test myself? How will I practice the things and then how will I apply it to my career or business?
Designing a project is not only about just picking the right materials, but recognizing, okay, how am I actually going to get that depth? How am I actually going to get that feedback that tells me that I’m learning what I’m supposed to learn.
Brett McKay: And this idea of having a project and getting direct feedback goes to the next principle of ultralearning is choosing direct learning over passive learning. So direct learning is if you’re going to learn a foreign language, well, go out there to Mexico and speak Spanish every day instead of just doing Duolingo online.
Scott Young: Yeah. So I think there’s a simple version of this principle that I think most people will recognize and accept. This is just the idea that if you want to be good at something, you have to do that thing. You can’t just read about it. Can’t just hear someone talk about it. You actually have to do direct practice. It turns out that this principle’s a little bit more deeper and a little bit more surprising, I think, when you dig into the actual science of it. And part of it is that most people have a sense that the brain is a little bit like a muscle. A lot of us use this metaphor, straining our mental muscles or our mental faculties.
This metaphor actually has a long history. If you go back in time to when people used to study Latin and geometry in school, this was a time period when the faculty view of the mind, the idea that there are a few discrete faculties and by training them the same way you would lift barbells or dumbbells with your arms will train your biceps, that if you do this kind of exercise, it doesn’t matter that what you’re learning isn’t super relevant or important. What matters is that you’re straining your mind and by straining your mind, you’ll just be good at things that involve those kinds of mental muscles. So just similarly to how if you do pushups and the bench press, the bench press you’re not really trying to lift that weight, but if you have to do something involving your chest muscles later, you’ll be a bit stronger.
It turns out that this isn’t how the brain works at all. And it turns out that the brain is actually extremely context specific, especially when you start learning things. What happens is that the things you learn tend to stay welded to the situations and context that you learn them in.
This can happen in two ways. One way is that you’re actually doing something different when you learn than when you actually are practicing. So the Duolingo example’s a clear example of this issue with transfer is that what you’re doing in the app is looking at a sentence and then looking at words in a word bank on your phone and tapping them with your finger. This is nothing like actually speaking a language. Maybe it involves only about 10% or 20% overlap with the actual things you need to do when you’re speaking a language, which involve retrieving the words from memory. They’re not going to be in front of you. Turning them into sentences again without having the word bank, producing them with your mouth, making sure you’re intelligible, dealing with the fact that maybe you don’t know that word and you actually have to look it up on the fly. There’s a lot of these little skills that are just never being practiced in Duolingo. And so you’re going to have obvious issues with transfer there.
And the other reason that transfer can be an issue is even if the skill transfers perfectly, even if you’re doing exactly the same thing, often you don’t activate the knowledge if the situation and context you learned it in is different from the way you apply it. A lot of studies show that you can teach students a particular set of skills in the classroom and then there’s some obvious application that they should definitely apply their knowledge. And they fail to and the kind of way you can think about this is that when they were learning in the classroom a part of their mindset, “Oh, this is the knowledge that I need to learn for this situation,” and when you go to a new situation it just doesn’t apply. “I don’t need to use it.” The idea here is that again you want to be working in a direct situation as closely as possible because that is going to tie your memory so you’re going to be able to remember the things that are actually important in that situation. So this turns out to be a fairly deep principle that has a lot of ramifications for how we learn that just go well beyond simply, “Well, you’ve got to do stuff to learn it.” Although that is an obvious implication of it.
Brett McKay: I think that was a really useful insight, the idea of the transferability of knowledge. Because I’ve experienced that in my own life. One example, when I was preparing for the law school exam, the LSAT, they had these logic puzzles that is part of the test. I sucked at them when I first started. But then I got really good at them. I just practiced them and I drilled them, but I don’t know how that transferred over to other aspects of my legal education. As soon as I was done with the LSAT, I completely forgot how to do these logic puzzles.
Scott Young: Well, you know what’s funny because you’re talking about logic puzzles and I think one of the clear examples of this today is critical thinking. That everyone wants to, we need to educate people on critical thinking and we need to take more critical thinking classes. And I’ve even taken a critical thinking class. I had to do it as part of my undergrad. I am of the opinion that these probably don’t work. And they probably don’t work for this exact reason that critical thinking is not a faculty. It’s not actually just an ability you have. Rather, what it is, is it is an accumulation of many, many, many, many quite specific skills. So you know that when you’re evaluating, let’s say, dietary information that you’re going to be skeptical of someone who says X,Y,Zed because you have some model of how the world works. It’s actually not really that easy to just teach people modus ponens or something like that and they can be like, “Aha. You’ve made a fallacious statement, and then I’m not going to listen to your advice.” People tend not to do that.
I think that in a lot of cases if you want to have general skills, the disadvantage of this is that you actually have to do a lot more practice than people often realize. But the advantage of this is that if you know that you’re going to be applying this skill in a particular context, you can accelerate the learning dramatically by tying your learning to that context fairly early on. So if you know that you’re going to be learning a language to have conversations with people, trying to practice those conversations is going to help a lot. Now it may not help you as much as you would like in being able to understand movies when you watch them or being able to read a novel, but at the same time it’s going to really help you in the thing that you care about.
Brett McKay: All right, so choose direct learning. So instead of just watching videos online, actually do the thing you’re trying to learn is the takeaway there.
Scott Young: I should say that reading and watching things isn’t bad. Often you need to do that to learn something. But at the same time, how many of us read a book and then that is the extent of our investment and we never go beyond that. The lesson of this is just that if we want an actual skill, that’s just not good enough.
Brett McKay: All right, so another principle is drilling. And I think folks have probably done drills in school. That’s how you learn the multiplication tables, when you conjugated verbs in a foreign language, you just drilled that thing over and over again. How do ultralearners make drilling more effective and efficient?
Scott Young: Right, so I think part of the difficulty, and this is sort of the challenge is that often when we’re in school and we have drills, we’re just kind of assigned them. It’s just sort of like, okay, do these problems. Okay. And then you do those problems. And it feels often arbitrary, boring. I remember doing drills in school and thinking, “Why are we doing this? What is the possible relevance of this to the real world?”
I think there’s two issues with drilling. One of them is not knowing why you’re doing a drill, which is often the case in school. Is that you’ve just been told to do it. You don’t really have a sense of, “Ah, okay I need to actually master this thing, and I need to master it in isolation so that I can get really good at it.”
And then the second thing I think about drills is that often they’re just sort of assigned to everyone in exactly the same way. So they’re not motivated by an observation about your own strengths and weaknesses, but they’re just okay, everyone’s doing this now. Everyone’s doing this grammar exercise. Everyone’s learning the same vocabulary list. The way I like to view it, and the way I think ultralearners do things quite well is that there is actually a larger process for which drills are just a smaller part.
The larger process starts with some direct practice. You actually try using the skill. And then you do a bit of analysis. You try to say to yourself, “Okay, if I want to keep getting better, what parts of this skill could I isolate off and practice separately so that I could really focus all of my attention on getting good at them?” I think if you ask those questions, then drills don’t become this sort of boring chore you have to do. They actually become a little bit of a creative exercise.
Let’s take the example of writing for instance. If you want to get better as a writer, this is now actually not a super easy process to figure out what are the drills you should do. You have to think about what are all the different components of writing well, so there’s things like writing headlines and making sure you’re using the right words and doing research and humor and storytelling and all sorts of things. And then if you ask yourself, “Okay, how would I get better at writing headlines?” Well, now this isn’t just sort of okay you’re just going to go do this assignment and write 50 headlines. Now what you’re doing is you actually have a little bit of a sort of mini project of, “Okay, how would I get good at this particular skill?”
The ultralearners that I met are often very good at breaking down complicated skills and working on the components. One of the people I mentioned, Eric Barone, who developed his own video game, he was really struggling with the art in the beginning. And so he would do this, he would create a bunch of art and then he would say, “Okay, what is the thing I don’t like?” In one case he was saying, “I don’t like the colors. I don’t feel like this is very vibrant. It feels kind of dull.” He actually went and got a book on color theory and he was researching that. And be like, “Okay, now I can go back and approach this in a new way with the things I’ve learned about this specific aspect of my skill.” I find that to be a much more valuable approach than how it’s typically tackled in schools.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I use that same sort of figuring out, doing analysis to figure out what you need to work on, what you need to drill on when I was in law school. I’m going to bring back the law school example because that was the last time I actually did a heavy learning project. But with legal writing, so in legal writing they put a premium on being short and concise, while still conveying the information you need to do. So what I would do is I would find verbose literature that’s just super wordy, that’s unnecessarily wordy, and then see if I could rejigger that in a way that’s much more concise that still conveys the original meaning. And I’d just do that over and over. It’s really hard. But it was useful to figure out, okay instead of using these three words, you can just use this one word. Or you can eliminate this thing. It was a useful drill practice for me.
Scott Young: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Another principle of ultralearning is this idea of retrieval, and it’s using testing to retrieve. We usually think of testing as a way to show that we have mastered a skill. It’s still a part of ultralearning. But you actually use testing in the learning process. So how can taking a test, sometimes even before you know a subject, help you learn that subject even more?
Scott Young: Retrieval is another one of those kind of deep principles that it sounds like, okay, yeah, I kind of get that at first. But if you really explore it, you’ll realize that it actually impacts a lot of areas of your life that have nothing to do with testing, nothing to do with studying. If you really deeply understand this principle, can apply it, you can see lots of situations. You’re like, “Oh, that’s why I can’t remember this.”
I’ll just briefly explain the principle through a study that was done by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt. I love this study because it just shows this kind of … it’s like the perfect, crisp counterintuitive study where people think one thing and the reality’s the opposite.
What they did is they took students and they split them up into different groups. And one of the groups, they got them to do repeated review, which is a very common studying technique. A lot of students do it where you just read something and then when you have more time, you just keep reading it. You read it again and again and again and again. Some students will do something a little bit more sophisticated than this. They’ll recopy their notes or they’ll use special highlighters or pens. But it’s essentially the same kind of activity.
The other group they got to do free recall, which is a little different. Where you read it once, and then you close the book. You’re not allowed to open it again, and you just have to try to remember as much as possible from the text. So it’s called free recall because there’s no questions or prompts. We’re not even talking about doing a practice test or doing flashcards. We’re literally just talking about the book’s closed, what was in the book. After this was done, they asked the participants how well do they think they learned the material. And the people who did repeated review, the people who just read it over and over again gave themselves really high marks. They thought they had really learned and understood the material.
In contrast, those who did free recall gave themselves terrible marks. They’re like, “Oh my God, that was so difficult. I cannot remember anything at all. That was terrible. I must not know it very well. I will probably score poorly on the test.” Funny thing is you actually give them a test, it’s the total opposite. Those who did free recall do much better on the test than those who did repeated review despite their intuitions about how much they learned pointing in the opposite direction.
Obviously, the first implication of this is that the way most students study is terrible. If you want to actually be able to remember things on tests, you have to close the book and practice remembering it. You can’t just look at it again and again. The way most students study is a form of open book studying where the material you’re trying to learn is in front of you. It is not being forced to be recalled. Now you don’t have to do free recall, although free recall is a pretty flexible technique. You can do things like cued recall, which is like flashcards. You can do things like practice tests. Practices are extremely helpful, especially for problems where you need to solve problems. If you’re dealing with physics or something, a practice test is going to probably be more valuable than free recall. But the same idea is here throughout. That you are trying to solve a problem, answer a question, remember what was said without actually looking at the answer.
Obviously this applies to studying, but one place that it applies that a lot of people don’t think about is in your day-to-day life. I was talking to someone who was getting prepared for a big speech that they had to do. And how do most people prepare for their speech? This person was silently reading their cue cards over and over again to okay, this is how I’m going to memorize my speech. And I’m like, “No, no, no, that’s the wrong way to do it. You have to put the flashcards down, put the cue cards down, try your speech. Obviously it’s going to go abysmally because you haven’t memorized it yet. But when you get stuck and you’re not sure what has happened, only then you try to look at it.” You actually have to practice remembering it and recalling it from memory and not just reading it.
This turns out to be a robust result that impacts our ability to remember many things in our lives. Not just things that we’re studying, but things we read from books, things that we had heard in conversations, all sorts of things, and it’s something that we often miss when we actually want to make sure that we have knowledge inside of our head.
Brett McKay: A big principle from that is listening to you, if learning isn’t hard, you’re probably not learning. If the learning seems easy, you’re probably really not learning it. If you’re not struggling with trying to recall with the test and fumbling, then it’s probably too easy. You’re not actually learning it. Even though you might think you’re learning it.
Scott Young: Yeah, so this is actually a really interesting point because I hesitate to say that difficulty itself is always good because you can make things, “Okay, I’m going to learn my physics textbook and it’s all going to be in Chinese. That’s going to be really hard so I’ll learn physics well.” Well, maybe not. If you don’t speak any Chinese, you probably don’t understand anything and so you’re not getting that much value.
That being said though, there’s a lot of directions where the more effective tactics, so direct practice, retrieval, a lot of the things that work better for learning, it just turns out that they’re more mentally strenuous and more difficult. The way that I like to think about it is that the brain is kind of an energy saving device. If it doesn’t have to learn something, it probably won’t. It’ll find some way to accomplish the result without actually making costly changes to your internal nervous system in order to actually encode that knowledge and embody it.
If you’re able to do something without getting good at a skill, then that environment probably will not push you by default to learn the skill. What separates ultralearners is that they are committed to really learning these skills and so they will deliberately choose the non default option. They will choose to do retrieval practice instead of review. They will choose to do direct practice even though it’s more fun to play on an app or just watch a YouTube video.
Because of this, they’re able to get out size results because if you focus your time and energy on what actually works, like in the study with retrieval versus review, you will actually learn faster because the amount of time you spend will be much more efficiently developed.
In this particular case of retrieval, there’s one researcher, R.A. Bjork, and he has a particular theory called desirable difficulties that particularly applies to this idea of retrieval. And it basically says the harder it is to retrieve something, if you are successful retrieving it, the better the impact will be on your long-term memory.
So this creates kind of an interesting trade-off that you want it to be a hard enough question that you actually have to struggle to get the answer, but not so hard that you can’t possibly remember anything. Finding that kind of right balancing point can be a little bit difficult but the reasoning seems to be that if something was fairly easy to retrieve, it might also have too much of a hint, too much context specificity and that might also mean that it’s generally less helpful. For instance, if you give a lot of hints in the question, then it tends to be less beneficial when you remember the answer than if, let’s say, you have a pretty vague question or a question that doesn’t actually give you that much detail if you can nonetheless remember those details, it tends to be better in the long term.
Brett McKay: That idea of if it’s hard, you’re probably learning it. I tell that to my son. He’s nine. He’s like, “Oh this is so hard.” I’m like, “That means you’re learning.” It’s good.
Another principle is feedback. And feedback, particularly negative feedback, is always hard to get. How does an ultralearner handle negative feedback? Do they just relish it. They think, “Oh, this is great that someone says this sucks.”
Scott Young: Well, not always. I don’t like getting negative feedback. If someone writes a negative review of my book, I don’t like reading that either. I’m still a human being. So I think people who are ultralearners, I don’t think that they leave their human identity at the door and they’re, “I’m just going to become a feedback machine, and you can say whatever you want to me.” Rather, I think that we accept that if we are going to try to learn a skill, we’re often going to face some uncomfortable experiences.
It’s not so much that you relish it and that you love that you have to do all these frustrating and sometimes painful things, but you recognize that what you’re doing is important enough to warrant this. What you can do often is structuring feedback.
When we’re talking about feedback, I think there’s two things that are important. One is calibrating feedback to your level. I think that there is an intuition that we have that if we got harder feedback, harsher feedback, we would probably improve. And I think in a lot of scenarios this is probably the case because the feedback that we get is probably too soft. It’s not cutting enough, particularly if you learned a skill for a long time and you feel comfortable using it, yeah it’s probably going to be too easy. But at the same time there’s the case where you set the bar way too high and it’s just fail, fail, fail, fail, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. And then you’re also not getting much benefit of feedback either.
And where feedback seems to be more beneficial is where there is a lot of information in it. One way of calibrating information is how much you can expect the feedback. If you know you’re going to get good feedback, then when you get it, it’s not actually telling you something new. If you know that you’re going to have failed something and someone tells you, you failed it, again, it’s not really telling you something new.
Where the kind of sweet spot is, is when you’re not sure what the feedback’s going to be. You’re not sure whether it’s going to be a positive result or a negative result. You’re not sure what someone is going to say about what you ought to improve about your performance. I think that trying to get that right difficulty zone is a big part of what ultralearners do when they’re seeking the right feedback environment. And often you can adjust little dials in your kind of approach to things so you can get into that sweet zone.
One of the examples that I use in that particular chapter was Chris Rock. He goes to these small comedy clubs to work on his comedy. He’s a famous comedian, so just him being there is such a treat for the audience that he doesn’t actually have to be that funny to impress them. What he does is he deliberately tones down his performance. He deliberately delivers the jokes a little bit worse than he would on stage. He doesn’t have the same punch and the same kind of delivery style that he’s famous for because he knows that if he delivers it in the Chris Rock way, he can kind of make anything funny. And what he wants to know is, is the material on its own funny. So you can see him kind of tweaking that dial so that he actually has the possibility of failing. He has the possibility of having a joke he’d say, no one laughs at it. I think that’s something that is very important with your own feedback is learning to tweak and find that sweet spot.
Brett McKay: And it’s also useful when you think about feedback is figuring out is the person I’m getting feedback from actually a useful person to go to get feedback from. Sometimes you might go ask your parents or your wife. They might not give you the best feedback.
Scott Young: Yeah, your best friend. What do you think of my business idea? I think that another thing that’s super important with feedback is to recognize that it’s kind of a twin problem. That on the one hand, a lot of us don’t get any feedback, and so we need to be probably getting more feedback than we’re getting right now. But on the other side, and this is sort of the hard part when communicating this idea, is that we actually need to filter more of our feedback as well.
We need to kind of get more feedback in the sort of front part of the funnel, but we also actually need to narrow the funnel. Because a lot of people get very little feedback, but they respond to all of it, which is sort of a bad combination. Because a lot of feedback just isn’t that informative. For instance, we’re both writers and when I write an article, if I ask for feedback on it, I’m sure that a handful of the comments, they’re going to talk about things that are not really that relevant to making that article better. It’s that person’s opinion. This particular idea didn’t appeal to me personally. That doesn’t matter.
But at the same time, if you are not getting any feedback on your writing, you’re not going to improve. But if you also overreact, you wrote one article and then it got really popular on some website, okay, so now that’s the template for all my articles in the future. That’s also a bad idea. So we need to not only get more feedback, but also filter it and process it so that we’re not overreacting to information, at least more than we can actually gain from the information at hand.
Brett McKay: So there’s other principles you highlight in the book, but let’s talk about, let’s say, based on the stuff we’ve talked about, someone’s listening to this and they’re like, “I want to start an ultralearning project.” Are there projects that you think are good for getting your feet wet with this?
Scott Young: I think the best project to start is the one that has been kind of eating you up inside your whole life. I think if you really reflect on it deeply, we all have one of those projects. We all have that thing that, “I really wanted to do X, but I just never did it.” And that could be learning a language, it could be playing an instrument. It could even be doing something for your career. “I hate giving speeches. Every time I have to stand up and give a speech I have almost a nervous breakdown. I wish I could just confidently come up there and just dazzle people on the stage.” Or, “I always wanted to do this, but I never did.”
For me, I think the most important factor is picking that project that you’re really excited about. That it’s something that when you articulate and describe it, it’s wow, wouldn’t that be cool. Wouldn’t that be exciting. Because if I just tell you, hey, learning math is important. You should learn math, but you’re not excited to learn math, it’s going to be a real struggle. It’s going to be a struggle to do things like direct practice and retrieval because they’re going to involve some discomfort. I think picking a project that really gets you excited and something that you can sort of start getting obsessed over, that’s the real key starting point. So it is going to be different for every person, and I wouldn’t want to say that there’s a right or a wrong project to start with. But I think the wrong project to start with is the one you’re like, “Ugh, yeah, I guess I’ll do this.”
Brett McKay: Well, Scott, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Scott Young: Yeah, so you can go to my website at scotthyoung.com. That’s S-C-O-T-T-H-Y-O-U-N-G.com. And you can also check out the book. It’s on Amazon, Barnes & Noble. If you prefer listening to audiobooks, which I know many people do, it’s also narrated by me on Audible, so you can listen to it there as well.
Brett McKay: And you can listen to it at 1.5 times the speed.
Scott Young: Yeah, yeah, you can just rip through it.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, Scott, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Scott Young: Thanks so much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Scott Young. He is the author of the book, Ultralearning. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, scotthyoung.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/ultralearning and find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
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