Ultralearning: The Key to Mastering Any Skill Quickly

Ultralearning: The Key to Mastering Any Skill Quickly
Photo by Milad Fakurian / Unsplash
These are my book notes on Ultralearning by Scott Young.

What is Ultralearning?

  • A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense
  • Strategy : a set of principles to solve a problem, the problem of learning as effectively as possible.
  • Self-directed : you are at the driver’s seat of your learning, meaning you’re choosing what to learn and why
  • Intensity : you take shorcuts to learn quicker in exchange of HIGHER MENTAL STRAIN, pushing your mind to limits. Ex : try to speak a language you jus started to learn with natives. Opposite : learning optimized for fun or convenience, like language learning app
  • Deeply and effectively learning is always the priority in ULTRAEARNING


« I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I figured writing would be one path that could get me there. Once again, I had selected a domain where I had little formal experience. I had no entrepreneurs in my family, and I had taken only a single college English class. But as I read through Ultralearning, I was startled to find that Scott explained, in nearly step-by-step fashion, the process I followed to go from unproven entrepreneur to bestselling author»

Principle #1: Metalearning—I started by examining other popular bloggers and authors. Their methods helped me to create a map for what I needed to do to become a successful writer.

Principle #2: Focus—I went full-time as a writer nearly from the start. Aside from a few freelance projects I took on to pay the bills, the vast majority of my time was spent reading and writing.

Principle #3: Directness—I learned writing by writing. I set a schedule for myself to write a new article every Monday and Thursday. Over the first two years, I produced more than 150 essays.

Principle #4: Drill—I systematically broke down each aspect of writing articles—the headline, the introductory sentence, the transitions, the storytelling, and more—and put together spreadsheets filled with examples of each segment. Then I set about testing and refining my ability to perform each small aspect of the larger task.

Principle #6: Feedback—I personally emailed nearly all of my first ten thousand subscribers to say hello and to ask for feedback on my writing. It didn’t scale, but it taught me a lot in the beginning. . . . and so on. »

Why use ultralearning?

  1. Evolve your career
  2. Personal life : deepest moments of happiness don’t come from doing easy things, but from realizing your potential and overcoming your own limiting beliefs about yourself. It offers a path that will offer self-satisfaction and confidence.

Make time for ultralearning

  • Do a part-time project
  • Use ultralearning for school or for time your already use learning stuff
  • Take a learning sabbatical, or use summer time to do big ultralearning project

Tristan de Montebello story

  • enrolled in the Toastmasters World Public Speaking Championship only a few days before the deadline
  • obsessively practiced : sometimes 2 speeches a day, videotaped everyone of them to look at flaws
  • asked for feedback for each speech he did, he found a mentor. The mentor said to he should do whatever was scariest for him (between polishing an existing speech and creating a new one)
  • he took improvisation classes to work on spontaneous delivery
  • he found a Holywood director who helped him to speak in different styles - angry, monotone, screaming, rap, etc.
  • a friend with theather background helped him develop his stage presence, how to use his body with his speech
  • he learned to speak to his audience before his speech to learn who they are and adapt his speech on the fly to connect with them
  • he became semifinalist
  • he did it because of obsessive work ethic, wanting to see how far he can go

Principles of ultralearning overview

  1. Make a priority of TRACKING YOUR PROGRESS and try to express it in numbers. Track the things that are important to you.
  2. Make a list of vocabulary words in link with the skill or subject you learn : learn them by heart with Anki, this is the foundation of your understanding of the new skill or subject

#1 Metalearning :

Create a topic map = what information, skills to learn AND methods, resources to learn them.

  • With this map, you can learn without getting lost = you know exactly what you want to learn and why, how to learn it and with which resources to go straight to the point INSTEAD of just practicing aimlessly without having an OVERALL VISION.
  • What do I need to learn to do what I want to do?

What are the long-term advantages of metalearning?

Each project you do will improve your GENERAL METALEARNING. It’s acquired with EXPERIENCE.

  • you learn new learning methods, new ways to gather resources, better time management, improved skills for managing motivation, more confidence to execute next project

How much planning should you do AND WHEN?

  • rule of thumb : invest 10% of total expected learning time in metalearning research prior to starting
  • for 500 h, 1000h projects, more like 5%

not a one time activity : do metalearning research regularly to reassess your needs

  1. Learn as usual for few hours
  2. spend a few hours doing research : searching online for ressources, asking experts, searching for new possible techniques
  3. Determine which of the 2 yielded the most results and continue doing it. Metalearning research has diminishing returns!


  1. Expliquer dans tes mots POURQUOI tu veux apprendre ce que tu veux apprendre, et l’écrire

Determine whether it's an intrinsic or extrinsic project: you do it because you want to learn because you love the subject, even if you don't know how you're going to apply it, or because you KNOW you're going to apply it and it's going to help you, but you don't particularly like it. The best projects have a mix of both.

If it's extrinsic, make sure that the skill or topic in question will actually help you to achieve your goal, and not just wishful thinking or misinformation. For example, getting an MBA without really thinking it through because your career is stuck, only to realize it didn't really change much.

Go directly to people who have achieved what you want to achieve to see if it makes sense to learn what you want to learn. Or simply ask them what you SHOULD learn to get where THEY are.

  1. find people on the internet and find emails : Twitter, Linkedin. At you workplace, in conferences.
  2. find online forums for what you want to do and ask around, email people and ask for 15 min calls or something
  1. Figure out how the knowledge in your subject is structured by doing research and noting down all the things you’ll need to learn to achieve your goal

Divide the things you’ll need to learn into 3 categories : Concepts, Facts, Procedures

  1. Concepts : anything that needs to be understood. Ideas that you need to understand in flexible ways for them to be useful (prominent in math, physics). If needs to be understood AND memorized, put it there
  2. Facts : anything that needs to be memorized, things for which it’s enough to just remember without understanding deeply
  3. Procedures : anything that needs to be practiced, actions you perform, like riding a bicycle. PROCEDURAL SKILLS.

Underline the concepts, facts and procedures that are going to be challenging, the bottlenecks for your learning

  1. ex : in math, the bottleneck might some hard to understand concepts. So you can take time to explain the concepts to people to make sure your undestand them
  2. ex : for medecine, the bottleneck is memorization, so you invest in space repetition software
  • Determine what ressources and methods to learn

Find the common way people learn this skill. If learned in school, find curriculum online. If nonacademic subject, interview des experts qui ont achieved what you want to achieve and ask them of ressources

  1. ex: want to learn about ancient Greece? find a university syllabus online for a course about ancient Greece. Look at the readings, textbooks they suggest

Now, consider making modifications to the default way.

  1. if it’s something where the success criteria is obvious (drawing, languages, music)
  2. if it’s a conceptual topic where you don’t even undestand what’s written on the syllabus, stick closer to the default path in the beginning

Find areas of study that align with goals and ones what don’t align. Emphasize those who do, exclude or minimize those who don’t

  1. ex : learning programming to create your own app. Focus on inner workings of app development, exclude theories of computation
  2. ex : you want to learn German to go an vacation for 2 weeks : focus on basic commons words and pronunciation, not spelling!


  1. Make a priority of TRACKING YOUR PROGRESS and try to express it in numbers. Track the things that are important to you.
  2. Make a list of vocabulary words in link with the skill or subject you learn : learn them by heart with Anki, this is the foundation of your understanding of the new skill or subject

#2 Focus :

  • try to recognize that you do not have the desire to do the task when you procrastinate
  • recognize that your impulse won’t last long! if you have a hard time to start, DO IT FOR JUST A FEW MINUTES, THEN TAKE A BREAK. Level up to pomodoro then. Then, schedule time to study
  • Inside the same block of focus, alternate between different aspects of the skill or knowledge to be remembered. If you have multiple hour, cover few topics instead of 1 only.

#3 Directness : LEARN BY DOING

  • Idea of learning being tied closely to the situation or context you want to use it in
  • It’s actually when doing the thing you want to get good at that much of the learning takes place
  • practice your skill DIRECTLY in the situation you actually want to use the skill in. Imagine la situation dans laquelle tu veux utiliser ton skill, et recrée la pour te pratiquer, afin de pouvoir l’utiliser dans la situation ou tu veux l’utiliser.


Project-based learning

  • use projects rather than classes to learn stuff
  • if you produce. something, you’re guaranteed to at least learn how to produce it
  • learn to program by building programs yourself
  • If you want to learn about military history, try to produce a military history paper by yourself instead of just reading books about it

Immersive learning

  • surround yourself in the target environnement in which the skill is practiced
  • ex : join open source projects or in a team as a programmer (like in a true company)

If you can' recreate the environment at all...

  • recreate the cognitive features : situations when you need to take decisions about what to do and cue knowledge you’ve stored in your head
  • ex : Flight simulators don't put you in a real plane, but force you to takes the same decisions you would take if you were piloting one

Overkill approach

  • aim for a particular test, performance or challenge that will be above the skill level you strictly require.
  • ex : aim for highest level of german exam even though you don’t need that much proficiency, to push himself more and prevent himself to be satisfied with less
  • ex : exhibit your photography, because you want to be a photographer (and a photographer shows their photos, right?)
  • You want to be a comedian on stage, so don't work exclusively in your room. Find stages with an audience to practice on.
  • You want to learn how to create video games? Create lots of video games.
  • You want to learn how to converse in a language? GO TALK instead of reading or using.
  • You want to get good grades on an exam? Practice the material that will be on the exam in an exam environment instead of doing unrelated problems.
  • You want to get a job as a web designer? Determine exactly what a web designer does (software, types of projects, etc.) and DO EXACTLY THAT. Create a down-to-earth portfolio that resembles the reality of the job.
  • You want to learn how to speak in public? GO SPEAK IN PUBLIC instead of spending all your time reading a book on how to speak in public.


  • What is the BOTTLENECK or rate-determining step of you ability? Your weakness that you can fix to unlock a new level of performance with the least amount of effort? BY IMPROVING IT YOU’LL IMPROVE FASTER THAN BY PRACTICING ALL ASPECTS OF THE SKILL AT ONCE.

How to design a drill?  - TECHNIQUES

  • Time slicing : If the skill is a performance, like a piano piece, soccer, acting, humor, divide the time into parts and focus on the part you suck at
  • Cognitive component : in a language, divide vocabulary from pronunciation, grammar etc. in a math problem, setting the right variables, choosing correct solution, correct calculations, etc WHAT IS HARD TO DO FOR YOUR BRAIN?
  • The Copycat : Useful for creative skills : copy the parts of the skill you don’t want to drill from someone else or your past work, then focus ONLY on the component you want to practice
  • Prerequisite Chaining : prendre une tâche que tu n’es pas capable de faire et donc tu ne sais pas ce que tu as besoin de savoir pour accomplir. Tu l’essaies, juge te faiblesses, retourne apprendre sur le sujet, réessaie, ainsi de suite. ex : Eric Barone pour apprendre pixel arts. Never done that before, tried, went back to learn color theory, tried again, went back to learn something else, etc.
  1. Find out your weakness, bottleneck
  2. Find a an exercice that focus on it specifically

#5 Retrieval : TEST TO LEARN

  • Take the final exam before the class even begins, to know what you need to learn
  • Test yourself regularly on info you learn


#1 Flashcards : when you can pair a specific cue with a particular response

  • you can use flashcards to memorize syntax, but concept that need to be applied in programs often don’t fit that cue-response framework

#2 Free recall : after a lecture or reading a section of a book, write down everything you remember

#3 Question Book Method : take notes by rephrasing the info into questions to be answered later. Restate the BIG IDEA of a chapter. Limit yourself to 1 question per section of text

#4 Self Generated Challenges : lorsque tu passes devant une info que tu dois PRATIQUER in a passive material, like powerpoints or a book, crée toi un challenge d’UTILISER LA TECHNIQUE DANS UN VRAI EXAMPLE

#5 Closed-book Learning : practice something without looking at ANY information. ONLY use your own head and see how far you can go. You can use it for DIRECT and DRILL practice


  • Go get the feedback to the source, aggressively

How to improve your feedback?

  • Best kind of feedback is CORRECTIVE FEEDBACK : find a good teacher to tell you when you’re doing something wrong and WHAT TO CHANGE.
  • There’s also outcome feedback : are you doing it wrong?
  • and informational feedback : What are you doing wrong? You can try go give yourself feedback by looking at what seems to be

#1 Noise cancellation : choose specific signals to look out for and forget the rest - the noise. FIND A PROXY PARAMETER that tells you plus ou moins how good you’re doing

  • ex : for a blog, you can’t completely change your approach to writing based on 1 highly viewed article because factors outside your control might have made it that way. NOT A GOOD PROXY
  • instead, you can use a tracker to know % of people who read the entire article

#2 Correct difficulty : not too hard, not to easy. If you fail or succeed all the time, there’s a PROBLEM. you won’t actually get good feedback, you either don’t know what you’re doing right (if you always fail), or what you’re doing wrong (if you always succeed)

#3 Metafeedback : look at how fast you’re improving. If you’re starting to stagnate, means it’s time to change your drills, difficulties and environment

#4 High intensity, rapid feedback : GET A LOT OF FEEDBACK AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE. ex : public speaking - go on stage as many times as possible to deliver speeches.

#7 Retention : Use SPACING METHOD

  • summary : use space repetition

#8 Intuition : Dig Deep before building up

  • #1 Don’t give up on hard problems easily : use a timer for another 10 min after you want to give up a problem. THINK.
  • #2 Try to prove things to understand them : dig much deeper before you consider something to be ‘’understood’’. How does it ACTUALLY work? Would you be able to build it yourself or find where the equation comes from?
  • #3 Always start with a concrete example : when faced with abstract concepts, FIND A CONCRETE EXAMPLE OF IT. When would use this, why, how. If you can’t find one example you DON’T understand
  • #4 Don’t fool yourself: Ask a LOT OF QUESTIONS. Even Feynman did it. Ask the ‘dumb’ questions. It keeps you from fooling yourself into thinking you know something you don’t

#5 Feynman Technique :

When to use the technique?

  1. For things you don’t understand at all : with a book in hand, explain and go back to the book over and over again
  2. For problems you can’t seem to solve : go through the problem STEP by STEP and generate an explanation, not just SUMMARIZING IT.
  3. Write down the concept or problem you want to understand at the top of a piece of paper.

In the space below, explain the idea as if you had to teach it to someone else.

  1. If it’s a concept, ask yourself how you would convey the idea to someone who has never heard of it before. I
  2. f it’s a problem, explain how to solve it and—crucially—why that solution procedure makes sense to you.
  3. When you get stuck, meaning your understanding fails to provide a clear answer, go back to your book, notes, teacher, or reference material to find the answer. »


  • summary : systematically do the things you're not confortable doing in your area of learning