Ultralearning by Scott Young

Has anyone read Ultralearning by Scott Young? I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning.

Here’s a description from the website:

Ultralearning is a strategy for aggressive, self-directed learning.

Self-directed means that, rather than waiting to pay for expensive tuition and tutors, you can take back control. Aggressive means that, instead of spending years at something without getting great, your limited time and effort are always directed towards what works.

To build this skill, we’ll start with the ultralearners themselves. People who have accomplished impressive learning feats, such as:

Benny Lewis, who quickly acquires new languages through fearless immersion.

Eric Barone, who became a millionaire nearly overnight after patiently acquiring all the skills to develop his own game.

Tristan de Montebello, who went from near-zero experience to a finalist for the World Champion of Public Speaking in seven months.

Nigel Richards, who became the French Scrabble World Champion, without speaking French.

Next we’ll go beyond individual projects and look at the science of learning. In doing so, we’ll resolve problems that vex students and professionals alike, such as:

  • Why does it feel like a lot of what we learn in school is useless? (And what do you need to do to prevent your own projects from having the same fate?)
  • Is feedback always helpful? (Hint: It’s not. What kind matters more, and this book will show you what to pay attention to and what to ignore.)
  • Is being more focused always better for learning? And how do you avoid the urge to procrastinate when learning something new?
  • What underlies the seemingly magical intuition of legendary geniuses such as Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman? (And can you approximate their magic with the right approach?)

Here are a few interesting excerpts.

Trivia questions

Roger Craig’s method for winning the Jeopardy game show:

A computer scientist by trade, he decided to start off by downloading the tens of thousands of questions and answers from every Jeopardy! game ever aired. He tested himself on those during his free time for months, and then, as it became clear that he was going to go on television, he switched to aggressively quizzing himself on the questions full-time. He then applied text-mining software to categorize the questions into different topics, such as art history, fashion, and science. He used data visualization to map out his strengths and weaknesses. The text-mining software separated the different topics, which he visualized as different circles. The position of any given circle on his graph showed how good he was in that topic—higher meant he knew more about that topic. The size of the circle indicated how frequent that topic was. Bigger circles were more common and thus better choices for further study. Beneath the variety and randomness in the show, he started to uncover hidden patterns.

Public speaking project

There were some interesting comments about the project to learn public speaking well in a few months:

He talked to a friend who works as a Hollywood director to give feedback on his delivery. The director taught [Tristan] de Montebello to give his speech dozens of times in different styles—angry, monotone, screaming, even as a rap—then go back and see what was different from his normal voice.

He took de Montebello through his speech and showed how each word and sentence indicated movement that could be translated to where he moved on the stage. Instead of standing constricted under the spotlight, de Montebello could now move gracefully and use his body to communicate his message on top of his words.

he learned to talk to his audience before going onstage: learn their language and emotions and connect with them. That way, applying all he had learned so far, he could change his speech on the fly, so it would be sure to connect with a new audience.

“Make me care,” Gendler told him after listening to one of de Montebello’s speeches. “I understand why this is important to you, but the audience doesn’t care about you. You have to make me care.”

What differentiated de Montebello wasn’t that he thought he could go from near-zero experience to the finalist for the World Championship in six months. Rather, it was his obsessive work ethic.

On active recall

Testing yourself—trying to retrieve information without looking at the text—clearly outperformed all other conditions.

free recall still did better than using concept mapping to study.

Since tests usually come with feedback, that might explain why students who practiced self-testing beat the concept mappers or passive reviewers.

Why do many prefer to stick to concept mapping or the even less effective passive review, when simply closing the book and trying to recall as much as possible would help them so much more?

Whether you are ready or not, retrieval practice works better. Especially if you combine retrieval with the ability to look up the answers, retrieval practice is a much better form of studying than the ones most students apply.

More difficult retrieval leads to better learning, provided the act of retrieval is itself successful.

Giving someone a test immediately after they learn something improves retention less than giving them a slight delay,

Should You Take the Final Exam Before the Class Even Begins?

A simple tactic for applying retrieval is, after reading a section from a book or sitting through a lecture, to try to write down everything you can remember on a blank piece of paper. Free recall like this is often very difficult, and there will be many things missed, even if you just finished reading the text in question. However, this difficulty is also a good reason why this practice is helpful.

[notetaking] Instead of writing that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, you could instead write the question “When was the Magna Carta signed?” with a reference to where to find the answer in case you forget.

What’s harder and more useful is to restate the big idea of a chapter or section as a question.

“Applied studies using actual classroom quizzes and real learning materials have usually found immediate feedback to be more effective than delay.”…Interestingly, laboratory studies tend to show that delaying the presentation of the correct response along with the original task (delayed feedback) is more effective… For hard problems, I suggest setting yourself a timer to encourage you to think hard on difficult problems before giving up to look at the correct answer.

On Richard Feynman

He excelled in math and physics but was abysmal in the humanities. His college grades in history were in the bottom fifth of his class, in literature in the bottom sixth, and his fine arts grades were worse than those of 93 percent of his fellow students. At one point, he even resorted to cheating on a test to pass. His intelligence, measured while he was in school, scored 125.

The secret was his impressive memory for certain arithmetic results and an intuition with numbers that enabled him to interpolate.

Even his magical intuition for physics had its explanation: “I had a scheme, which I still use today when somebody is explaining something that I’m trying to understand: I keep making up examples.” Instead of trying to follow an equation, he would try to imagine the situation it described… Then whenever his interlocutor made a mistake, he could see it. “As they’re telling me the conditions of the theorem, I construct something which fits all the conditions. You know, you have a set (one ball)—disjoint (two balls). Then the balls turn colors, grow hairs, or whatever, in my head as they put more conditions on. Finally they state the theorem, which is some dumb thing about the ball which isn’t true for my hairy green ball thing, so I say, ‘False!’”

However, his intuition, too, would fail him when the subject of his study wasn’t built on those assumptions. Feynman’s mathematician friends would test him on counterintuitive theorems from mathematics. His intuition there would fail when properties of the procedure (such as that an object can be cut into infinitely small pieces) defied the normal physical limitations that aided his intuition elsewhere.

Feynman himself would supply concrete examples even when they were not given. Working through an explicit example in his mind’s eye, he could follow along and see what the math was trying to demonstrate.

Feynman knew he was smart and had no problem asking [questions].

Check out the book and let me know what you think. :slight_smile:


It surprised and disappointed me that Scott Young avoided ‘mnemonic’ techniques for learning in his book,though he mentioned about it! But may be, because he didn’t use it in his own learning,he might not have found it to be too important for learning…


Here is a passage from his book ‘Ultralearning’ on Mnemonic. And I highly disagree with him in multiple areas!

I don’t use Mnemonics for memorizing digits. I use Mnemonics for a lot of reallife applications. Infact,the only reason I got interested in Mnemonic is to apply the techniques in real life,which I do everyday!
After I read about his view on mnemonics and digit memorizing,I wondered if he really ‘understood’ much about mnemonic world!! I found his first logic against mnemonic to be ‘strange’ and stupid(and uninformed)!

I also didn’t find second point in the passage below to be a strong argument against mnemonic!!

Mnemonics work well, and with practice, anyone can do them. Why, then, are they not front and center in this chapter, instead of at the end? I believe that mnemonics, like SRS, are incredibly powerful tools. And as tools, they can open new possibilities for people who are not familiar with them. However, as someone who has spent much time exploring them and applying them to real-world learning, their applications are quite a bit narrower than they first appear, and in many real-world settings they simply aren’t worth the hassle.

I believe there are two disadvantages to mnemonics. The first is that the most impressive mnemonics systems (like the one for memorizing thousands of digits of the mathematical constant pi), also require a considerable up-front investment. After you’re done, you can memorize digits easily, but this isn’t actually a very useful task. Most of our society adapts around the fact that people generally cannot memorize digits, so we have paper and computers do it for us. The second disadvantage is that recalling from mnemonics is often not as automatic as directly remembering something. Knowing a mnemonic for a foreign-language word is better than failing to remember it entirely, but it’s still too slow to allow you to fluently form sentences out of mnemonically remembered words. Thus mnemonics can act as a bridge for difficult-to remember information, but it’s usually not the final step in creating memories that will endure forever.


I think he wrote that creating images for vocabulary words made them twice as memorable for him, but the book didn’t go into detail. He wrote that mnemonic techniques were outside the scope of the book and recommended Moonwalking with Einstein for an introduction to the topic, which was fair.

I guess it depends on the subject. If you need to remember history dates for a test or something like that, numbers are useful.


…or you could argue, that is only because it’s not formally part of the educational system. Think about reading and writing… learning all those vowels and consonants and then those words (a considerable up-front investment).

Go back a few hundred years… how many people could in fact read and write? How much money (class/cast if you will) did these people have? What was Martin Luther’s point about translating the Bible into German from Latin which nobody understood?


I did. I didn’t find it useful. It is like a buffet of tips.


I’ve read it and am applying it to mnemonics and later to other projects.

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I wonder what does it says. I find it odd, that people argument against the use of mnemonics for language learning however none of them invent a system. If you invent a system, say either for all languages or a family of language (patterns based) or a particular one (Russian) and yes, it will not be fast, yes. But if you share your system whoever wishes to learn the language would learn much more faster. Because the problem of inventing systems is that you will need to find the patterns and think of the best way out of multiple good ways to achieve the goal: acquire a new language.

I’m currently working in a system for Russian Grammar (though you can perfectly speak a language based only in vocabulary, trail and error), making my focus: everything about the verb and the cases of pronouns, nouns and adjectives. Example: so far, I can teach a noob to learn the conjugation of the verb in a very easy way… aiding the learner to be able to conjugate any none irregular verb in an instant (after all, rules allow for filtering algorithms). More on that in another post.

I wonder what’s this about.

A mnemonist can literally memorize the tips and understanding of Mr. de Montebello. So, for us, it’s very good to find people who think at least, that they have nailed a field on how to do things, we can only research to determine whether or not they’re findings are based on reality or imaginary followed by memorization and application.

Oh this one is easy and obvious… it’s imagination. Einstein used his imagination and talk about it, maybe there are some books where he details something of this, I don’t know. But in the manner of his speech there’s a lot of imagination. Mnemonist should know a thing or two about imagination, it only takes thinking the ins and outs of the principles of memory and remembering that one can’t simply imagine something that’s not in the brain coming from beforehand input.

Richard Feynman learning technique based on making analogies is just the story method in a loose but with specific images, the reinforcement allows for the loci to be every detail from the images and every connotation that causes the learner come up with the particular images for the analogies.

Basically every time we say: review. At least, this is what I mean. Once you review to the topic (you can recall by looking at the images in your mind and not the material), you’re done, keep learning.

I’m going to read this book.


He created the game Stardew Valley. There are some videos on YouTube about the story.

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I was listening to the audiobook version yesterday, but find it a long read and I have a problem with some of the statements he makes with learning languages. For example the Thai program in Bangkok where they only speak Thai and trying to teach foreigners to learn the language like a kid basically does is not very successful. In the first stages everything works kind of good when the students have a lot of clues and they are working with nouns. It is easy to understand what I’m saying if I show you a toy car and point at it and then make it drive with a vrooom vroooom sound. But as soon as they have to deal with more complicated sentences the students most of the time are clueless and drop out after a while learning.

Benny Lewis is one of the examples in the book is a person that doesn’t deliver what he claims is possible when it comes to languages. There have been many discussions on language forums about that in the past when I was interested in learning languages, but that is beyond the scope of this forum. When I read a book and I start to read things that are not completely accurate I start to doubt the other stories a bit also.

I’m a bit afraid they are cherry picking in this book and that it paints a picture of one successful person after the other and connecting this to the ultra learning approach. Now to be fair after listening for three hours I found it boring and turned it off so maybe there is some good stuff in it later on.

Just my two cents.


I read “Learn more, study less” and it was awesome. I find his methods very helpful for math, programming, physics and chemistry.
But I’m pretty sceptical about his style of learning languages. I use Dominics “language cities” and it’s too much faster.

We can logically verify this.
Except that Einstein, Newton and Feynman used similar methods.The real proof of the effectiveness of Young’s methods is the MIT challenge. During which he mastered super-logical disciplines such as mathematics, physics and engineering at lighting speed.

But there is no evidence that this is the best way to learn languages. Learning 4 languages ​​in a year is not difficult as it seems.
Indeed, if we look at the most amazing polyglote in history, Giusepe Gasparo Mezzofanti, he primarily relied on his extraordinary memory.


As a lifelong learner and teacher, I really enjoyed the book even more than Tim Ferriss’ similar The Four Hour Chef. Here’s a list of his top nine tips and my notes which I plan to use:

  1. Draw a map for the scope of material to learn and a baseline of what you know. Strategize. Know concepts, facts, procedures. Set benchmarks. Know what to exclude or emphasize. Research 10% of total time expected to learn in research.

  2. Reserve time to focus on learning without interruptions. Recognize that you are procrastinating. Break after 50 minutes. Eliminate distractions.

  3. Do the things that you want to become good at, not easier things. The goal is knowledge transfer which is done more easily through projects, immersion, simulations, and overkill. Not fun apps.

  4. Drill. Focus on weak areas. Break complex skills into smaller parts and then reassemble. Alternate drills with knowledge transfer techniques then integrate. Create drills by time-slicing parts, a conceptual part, repeating, drilling down, stepping back to learn prerequisites.

  5. Test yourself for confidence. Push yourself to recall. Self-testing greatly outperforms concept-mapping and review by reading. Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt. Free recall without prompts or suggestions after a short period of forgetting is best with a target of having success (desirable difficulty). Regular testing of previous material makes it easier to learn new material. (forward-testing effect) Use flash cards, free recall, question book notetaking at a conceptual level, challenges, closed-book concept maps.

  6. Get feedback and learn how to incorporate good advice. Ignore the noise. Filter out demotivational comments. Look for outcome/holistic, informational, and corrective feedback. Immediate is better than delayed. Look for environments where success or failure is not completely guaranteed. Notice how your strategy works. Get more feedback more often.

  7. Figure out why you forget and why so you remember forever. Strengthen natural memory. Decay over time, interference of new memories, and losing the association from key to value are three ways of forgetting. Spaced repetition or other review styles. Pick a mnemonic system and stick with it. Use spacing, proceduralization (creating implicit memories through repetition), overlearning (multiple types of learning or learning a level up), or mnemonics.

  8. Use play and exploration in conceptual ways to increase your intuition. Don’t rely only on mnemonics. Create examples and look for similar cases. Don’t’ give up on hard problems, prove things. The illusion of explanatory depth keeps us from trying. Draw a bicycle. Always start with a concrete example. “Don’t fool yourself” and " and you’re the easiest person to fool."-- Richard Feynman. The Dunning-Kruger effect is when you think you know more than you do. Ask lots of questions. Write down concepts or problems as if you want to teach them.

  9. Experiment outside of your comfort zone. Hypothesis, experiment, results, repeat. Experiment with 1) methods, materials, and resources, 2) technique, and 3) style. How to experiment 1) copy, then create, 2) compare different methods side-by-side, split testing, 3) introduce new constraints, 4) combine unrelated skills, 5) explore extremes.

I’ve noticed that many competitive memory athletes start a journal to see where they can improve and follow many other tips. Young bases his tips on research and experience. This has been an excellent summary of how to use memory systems for me.


I read it. Though I think the process he described can be made quicker with mnemonics.


I like it. I think it should be combined with the 12 week year with the memory tech of your choice.


Tim Ferriss who seems to be able to learn languages quickly however he does not seem to be able to keep them all at his finger tips. The way he does it or starts it is by using 10 sentences which cover how the language works(It is the same questions see 4 Hour Chef for more info), then he adds up to 5,000 words of vocabulary and then he seems to go for some form of immersion. He will often watch a lot of his favourite films only in the foreign language so Road House in Spanish for example.


This is related to the section on Van Gogh in the book.

According to a new study from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University,this period of exploration followed by exploitation of his new drip technique set up Pollock for a “hot streak,” or a burst of high-impact works clustered together in close succession. In Pollock’s case, this was a three-year period from 1947 to 1950, during which he created all his drippy, splattered masterpieces that he is still famous for today.

…Hot streaks, they found, directly result from years of exploration (studying diverse styles or topics) immediately followed by years of exploitation (focusing on a narrow area to develop deep expertise).

With this new understanding about what triggers a hot streak, institutions can intentionally create environments that support and facilitate hot streaks in order to help their members thrive.

“Neither exploration nor exploitation alone in isolation is associated with a hot streak. It’s the sequence of them together,” said Dashun Wang, who led the study.

“Although exploration is considered a risk because it might not lead anywhere, it increases the likelihood of stumbling upon a great idea. By contrast, exploitation is typically viewed as a conservative strategy. If you exploit the same type of work over and over for a long period of time, it might stifle creativity. But, interestingly, exploration followed by exploitation appears to show consistent associations with the onset of hot streaks.”