Ultralearning by Scott Young [Book Summary & PDF]

Ultralearning is a fascinating and inspiring read. Scott Young has compiled a gold mine of 9 actionable strategies for learning hard things faster. Ready to explore them and find out how we could, too, become an Ultralearner?




Who is this book for?

This book is ideal for everyone who wants to learn practical skills and knowledge faster than formal schooling, at the fraction of the expected college tuition fees.

About the author

Scott Young is the author of Wall Street Journal and National best selling book Ultralearning. He has been a prolific writer on his blog since 2006, where he writes about learning, productivity, career, habits and living well. He is known for documenting learning challenges such as learning a 4-year MIT computer science degree in one year, learning four languages in one year and learning to draw portraits in 30 days. His work has been featured in TEDx, The New York Times, Lifehacker, Popular Mechanics and Business Insider.

In this summary

Ultralearning is a fascinating and inspiring read. Scott Young has compiled a gold mine of 9 actionable strategies for learning hard things faster. Ready to explore them and find out how we could, too, become an Ultralearner?

Let’s dive in!


Ultralearning means pursuing intense, self-directed learning projects, to acquire skills & knowledge fast. It isn’t easy. You’ll need to make time for it (I know you’re busy) and be forced to meet frustrations associated with change & personal growth.

Ultralearning will strain you mentally, emotionally, and possibly even physically. Let’s face, though…

Your deepest moments of happiness don’t come from doing easy things. Ultralearning offers a path to master those things that will bring you deep satisfaction and self-confidence. Ultralearning can help you accelerate, transition, or even save your career in an ever-evolving, competitive world.

Above all, ultralearning helps you expand. It gives you confidence that you might be able to do things that you couldn’t do before. There are 9 universal principles that underlie an ultralearning project.

Ready to explore them?

1. Metalearning: First Draw A Map

Start by learning how to learn the subject or skill you want to tackle. Discover how to do good research and how to draw on your past competencies to learn new skills more easily.

Did you know that understanding how vocabulary acquisition works in French will likely also help with learning Chinese?

Over the long term, the more ultralearning projects you do, the more you’ll know your learning capacity, how to manage your schedule, time, & motivation, and you’ll have well-tested strategies for dealing with common problems.

For short-term improvements, break down metalearning research into three questions:

  1. Why – Understanding your motivation to learn. Is it instrumental (learning with the purpose of achieving a non-learning result, such as acquiring a skill for a job) or intrinsic (pursuing learning for its own sake, such as playing the guitar for pleasure)? If instrumental, will learning the skill actually help you achieve your goal? Talk to people who have already done what you want to achieve.
  2. What – Knowledge and abilities you’ll need to acquire in order to be successful. Create three columns & write down: Concepts: Ideas that need to be understood in flexible ways (not memorised) in order for them to be useful. Facts: Anything that needs to be memorised. Procedures: Actions that need to be performed and may not involve much conscious thinking at all….and underline the bottlenecks & search how to overcome them.
  3. How – Resources, environment, and methods you’ll use when learning. Use the methods called Benchmarking (as a default strategy, find common ways in which people already learn the skill or subject) and Emphasise/Exclude (find what aligns with your goals and make modifications to the benchmark strategy”).

Invest 10% of your expected learning time into research prior to starting and continue to research as more bottlenecks appear.2. Focus: Sharpen Your Knife

Cultivate the ability to concentrate. Carve out chunks of time when you can focus on learning, and make it easy to just do it.

People generally struggle with focus in three broad varieties: starting, sustaining, and optimising the quality of their focus.

Not the ultralearners. Here’s how they do it.

  1. Failing to Start Focusing (aka Procrastinating)When you procrastinate, instead of doing the thing you’re supposed to, you work on something else or slack off.To solve the issue:
  • Recognise when you are procrastinating & keep track of it.
  • Ask yourself which strong urge is more powerful in that moment: to do a different activity (e.g. eat something, check your phone, take a nap etc.) or to avoid the thing you should be doing (because you imagine it will be uncomfortable, painful, or frustrating etc.)?
  • Start working. It usually only takes a couple of minutes until the worry starts to dissolve, even for fairly unpleasant tasks.
  1. Failing to Sustain Focus (aka Getting Distracted)People retain more of what they learn when practice is broken into different studying periods than when it is crammed together.50 minutes to an hour is a good length of time for many learning tasks.

    If you have several hours to study, it’s better to alternate between a few topics rather than focus exclusively on one.

    Finally, beware the distractions from the surrounding environment and negative emotions, restlessness, or daydreaming. Avoid them at all cost.

  2. Failing to Create the Right Kind of FocusFor simple tasks or ones that require intense concentration toward a small target (e.g. to throw a dart or shoot a basketball), you need high mental arousal, which creates a feeling of keen alertness.For more complex tasks, such as solving math problems or writing essays, tend to benefit from a more relaxed kind of focus. Working in a quiet room at home might be the ideal environment.

3. Directness: Go Straight Ahead

Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at. Don’t trade it off for other tasks, just because those are more convenient or comfortable.

We study through books, lectures, or apps, hoping they’ll eventually make us better at the real thing.

The easiest way to learn directly is to simply spend a lot of time doing the thing you want to become good at.

Consider the following 4 tactics:

  1. Project-Based Learning

If you organise your learning around producing something, you’re guaranteed to at least learn how to produce that thing. Learning to program by creating your own computer game is a perfect example.

  1. Immersive Learning

Immersion is the process of surrounding yourself with the target environment in which the skill is practiced. E.g. going to France to learn French.

  1. The Flight Simulator Method

For many skills, there’s no way to actually practise the skill directly. In these cases, a simulation of the environment will do the trick.

  1. The Overkill Approach

With this approach, you put yourself into an environment where the demands are extremely high, so you’re unlikely to miss any important lessons or feedback. E.g. Competing in the World Championship of Public Speaking.

4. Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point

Be ruthless in improving your weakest points. Break down complex skills into small parts; then master those parts and build them back together again. By identifying a rate-determining step in your learning, you can isolate it and work on it specifically.

For example, when learning a foreign language, vocabulary is a rate-determining step; the number of sentences and ideas you can successfully utter depends on how many words you know. Alternate between learning directly and doing drills on rate-determining steps, and you’ll be approaching mastery with each cycle.

Consider these 5 drills:

  1. Time Slicing – The easiest way to create a drill is to isolate a slice in time of a longer sequence of actions. Musicians often do this. They identify the hardest parts of a song, practise them until they’re perfect, and then integrate them back into the whole song.
  2. Cognitive Components – Sometimes you’ll want to practise a particular cognitive component, not a slice in time. In this case, drill only one component when, in practice, others would be applied at the same time. For instance, focusing on pronunciation, without applying proper grammar in a sentence or remembering what the words mean.
  3. The Copycat – Sometimes it’s impossible to practise one component without also doing the work of the others. By copying the parts of the skill you don’t want to drill (either from someone else or your past work), you can focus exclusively on the component you want to practice.
  4. The Magnifying Glass Method – This method is to spend more time on one component of the skill than you would otherwise. E.g. writing 20 alternative subject lines for a sales email, when practising email marketing.
  5. Prerequisite Chaining – Many ultralearners start with a skill that they don’t have all the prerequisites for. Then, when they inevitably do poorly, they go back a step, learn one of the foundational topics, and repeat the exercise. This occurs when you start learning pixel art simply by making it. If you start struggling with colours, you learn colour theory, and repeat your work.

6. Retrieval: Test To Learn

Testing isn’t simply a way of assessing knowledge but a way of creating it. Test yourself before you feel confident, and push yourself to actively recall information rather than passively review it.

The research is clear: if you need to recall something later, you’re best off practising retrieving it.

Free recall tests, in which you need to recall as much as you can remember without prompting, tend to result in better retention than cued recall tests, in which you are given hints about what you need to remember.

Cued recall tests, in turn, are better than recognition tests, such as multiple-choice answers, where the correct answer needs to be recognised but not generated.

To practise retrieval, use:

  1. Flash Cards – Flash cards are an amazingly simple, yet effective, way to learn paired associations between questions and answers.
  2. Free Recall – After reading a section from a book or sitting through a lecture, try to write down everything you can remember on a blank piece of paper.
  3. The Question-Book Method – Rephrase what you’ve recorded as questions to be answered later. Instead of writing that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, write the question “When was the Magna Carta signed?”, with a reference to where to find the answer.
  4. Self-Generated Challenges -As you go through your passive material, you can create challenges for yourself to solve later.
  5. Closed-Book Learning – Cut off the ability to look things up from the source, and any learning activity can become an opportunity for retrieval.

6. Feedback: Don’t Dodge The Punches

Feedback is harsh and uncomfortable. Know how to use it without letting your ego get in the way. Extract the signal from the noise, so you know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

Feedback is uncomfortable. However, once you get into the habit of receiving it, it becomes easier to process without overreacting emotionally.

Feedback works well when it provides useful information that can guide future learning.

Here’s 3 different types of feedback ultralearners seek:

  1. Outcome Feedback: Are You Doing It Wrong?

This tells you something about how well you’re doing overall but offers no ideas as to what you’re doing better or worse. This kind of feedback can come in the form of a grade—pass/fail, A, B, or C.

Every entrepreneur experiences this kind of feedback when a new product hits the market.

  1. Informational Feedback: What Are You Doing Wrong?

This tells you what you’re doing wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you how to fix it. This kind of feedback is easy to obtain when you can get real-time access to a feedback source.

Practising Italian in Italy provides informational feedback: that person’s confused stare when you misuse a word won’t tell you what the correct word is, but it will tell you that you’re getting it wrong.

  1. Corrective Feedback: How Can You Fix What You’re Doing Wrong?

This is the best kind of feedback; it shows you not only what you’re doing wrong but how to fix it.

This kind of feedback is often available only through a coach, mentor, or teacher. Flash cards also provide corrective feedback by showing you the answer to a question after you make your guess.

7. Retention: Don’t Fill A Leaky Bucket

Understand what you forget and why. Learn to remember things not just for now but forever.

Being able to understand how something works or how to perform a particular technique is useless if you cannot recall it.

Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve shows that we tend to forget things incredibly quickly after learning them.

Forgetting is the default, not the exception. Thus, ultralearners developed 4 mechanisms to win the war against forgetting:

Spacing: Repeat to Remember

Spreading learning sessions over more intervals over longer periods of time tends to cause much better performance in the long run.

Many ultralearners apply spaced-repetition systems (SRS) as a tool for retaining facts, trivia, vocabulary words, or definitions.

Spacing does not require complex software; simply printing lists of words, reading them over, and then rehearsing them mentally will do.

Proceduralisation: Automatic Will Endure

Most skills proceed through stages – starting declarative but ending up procedural as you practice more. A perfect example of this is typewriting.

To apply this concept, ensure that a certain amount of knowledge is completely proceduralised before practice concludes, or spend extra effort to proceduralise some skills, which will serve as cues or access points for other knowledge.

Overlearning: Practice Beyond Perfect

Additional practice, beyond what is required to perform adequately, can increase the length of time that memories are stored. Practising a little longer in one session produces an additional week or two of recall.

Mnemonics: A Picture Retains a Thousand Words

Mnemonics are designed to remember very specific patterns of information. They usually involve translating abstract or arbitrary information into vivid pictures or spatial maps.

8. Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up

Develop your intuition through play and exploration of concepts and skills. Understand how understanding works, and don’t recourse to cheap tricks of memorisation to avoid deeply knowing things.

Intuition sounds magical, but it’s just the product of a large volume of organised experience & patterns dealing with the problem.

Simply spending a lot of time studying something isn’t enough to create a deep intuition. Here’s a few rules to build your intuition:

  1. Don’t Give Up on Hard Problems Easily

Give yourself a “struggle timer” as you work on problems. When you feel like giving up and that you can’t possibly figure out the solution to a difficult problem, set a timer for another ten minutes to push yourself a bit further.

  1. Prove Things to Understand Them

You can’t always master things by following other people’s results. Instead, mentally try to re-create those results to deeply understand how they work. Use the Feynman technique to see how well you understand the subject.

  1. Always Start with a Concrete Example

Most people learn abstract, general rules only after being exposed to many concrete examples. When it’s not possible to imagine an appropriate example, that’s evidence that you don’t understand something well enough.

  1. Don’t Fool Yourself

When you lack knowledge about a subject, you also tend to lack the ability to assess your own abilities. One way to avoid this problem of fooling yourself is simply to ask lots of questions.

9. Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone

True mastery comes not just from following the path trodden by others but from exploring possibilities they haven’t yet imagined.

As your skills develop, you need to experiment and find your own path.

There are three types of experimentation:

  1. Experimenting with Learning Resources – Experiment with methods, materials, and resources you use to learn. It is useful in helping you discover what works best for you.
  2. Experimenting with Technique – Pick some subtopic within the skill you’re trying to cultivate, spend some time learning it aggressively, and then evaluate your progress. Should you continue in that direction or pick another?
  3. Experimenting with Style – Spend time studying and discussing the works of other experts in your field to create a large library of possible styles and ideas you could adapt to your own work.


Key Takeaways

  • Ultralearning helps master things that bring deep satisfaction and self-confidence.
  • Start by learning how to learn the subject or skill you want to tackle.
  • Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at.
  • Break down complex skills into small parts; then master those parts and build them back together again.
  • Forgetting is the default, not the exception.
  • Intuition is the product of a large volume of organised experience & patterns dealing with the problem.
  • Carve your own path of mastery through experimentation.

Further Reading

Range by David Epstein. What's the most effective path to success in any domain? The author discovered that in most fields, generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel.

Atomic Habits by James Clear. Atomic Habits will reshape the way you think about progress and success, and give you the tools and strategies you need to transform your habits.

Guidelines is my eBook that summarises the main lessons from 33 of the best-selling self-help books in one place. It is the ultimate book summary; Available as a 80-page ebook and 115-minute audio book. Guidelines lists 31 rules (or guidelines) that you should follow to improve your productivity, become a better leader, do better in business, improve your health, succeed in life and become a happier person.

Action Steps

  1. Decide what your first ultralearning project would be and start doing your research.
  2. Schedule time in your calendar for your project.
  3. Focus and start learning, getting feedback from a coach or mentor.
  4. Download the complete book on Amazon.

This summary is not intended as a replacement for the original book and all quotes are credited to the above mentioned author and publisher.