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.

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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.

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…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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