You may think you’re a quick learner, but Scott H. Young sets the bar. He learned MIT’s four-year computer science curriculum in less than 12 months, and four languages in a year, both of which he writes about on his blog. While acquiring knowledge of this magnitude feels seemingly impossible, Young cracked the learning code by studying “ultralearners”—people who pursued extreme, self-directed learning projects and employed similar tactics to complete them successfully.
“Ultralearning isn’t easy,” he says. “It’s hard and frustrating and requires stretching outside the limits where you feel comfortable. However, the things you can accomplish make it worth the effort.”
Consider Bennie Lewis, one of the ultralearners Young profiles in his new book, Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career. Young was in a student exchange program in France and was struggling to learn the language. Then he heard that Lewis became fluent in three months.
“First, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s bullshit,'” he says. “But I put my skepticism aside to see what he was doing differently.”
After meeting Lewis, Young realized that although he had submersed himself in French culture, he had inadvertently created an English bubble, picking classes that were taught in English and making English-speaking friends. Lewis, on the other hand, hadn’t relied on traditional language learning techniques. He’d dove in, using a phrasebook to get started, speaking to strangers, and using visual mnemonics to memorize vocabulary.
“It wasn’t something I’d ever seen done before,” recalls Young. “I’d studied topics within school constraints. I’d never seen someone undertake a project where they weren’t following that recipe.”
The scope of ways we have to learn hard skills is broader than we think, says Young. “We think school is the only way to learn, but language classes are not optimal because you get nowhere near enough practice,” he says.
Starting Your Own Ultralearning Project
While the thought of ultralearning may sound overwhelming, you don’t have to take on extreme projects. In fact, young says you can use the tactics to learn skills for work or for fun.
“It’s possible to teach yourself difficult and valuable skills in an effective manner,” he says. “We live in a world that’s becoming more complicated and sophisticated by the day. With the pace of change, it’s no longer a case where you can learn something in school, get a job and be good for the rest of your life. You’ve got to continue to learn.”
Fear and lack of confidence can be huge obstacles, Young admits. And some people have had a bad experience in the education system, being told they weren’t good in certain subjects. “It’s easy to fall into a trap and not make progress if you have preexisting belief,” says Young. “You need to be open to the idea that there is more than one way to learn, putting different principles to work.”
In his book, Young identifies nine principles to use when learning a new skill, including metalearning, drilling, feedback, and experimentation. “Some seem obvious,” he says. “And some may not be on the mark for every project. But I hope to challenge people, especially if the way they had been going about learning something wasn’t working in the past.
Two Counterintuitive Principles
Young says two of the principles you use when learning are seldom appreciated, and the first is directness.
“A lot of us are working under the wrong metaphor,” he says. “Most people think the brain is like a muscle. The muscle metaphor says when you go to the gym and do barbell exercises, you’ll be stronger when you go to lift in real life. The problem is that the brain learns in specifics. You’re stuck in the context when you learn something.”
Transferring knowledge and applying it in real life won’t work if it doesn’t match the context under which it was learned. What matters are the cognitive features of what you’re trying to master, and the way you practice must be substantially similar. Young suggests project-based and immersive learning, such as Lewis’s application of the French language by not being afraid to speak to strangers.
The second principle that is misunderstood is retrieval. “Students often study by reading and rewriting their notes,” he says. “The problem is that the brain is a cognitive miser. If don’t have to recall something, I don’t store it in my memory.”
Instead of reviewing, the better way to learn is to practice recalling something, testing yourself before you think you’re ready. Young suggests taking sample tests or using flashcards to recall what you’ve learned, then identify the areas where your retrieval is faulty.
Young admits that ultralearning is hard, so why should you attempt it? “When you learn something you didn’t feel like you could learn before, you broaden of your horizons,” he says. “You can do something you weren’t able to before. We get busy in our lives and are met with frustration barriers. When you achieve something you didn’t think you could do before, it becomes a reference point going forward in your life.”