The Index Card Summary of “Ultralearning”

Anyone in the working world today knows that life-long learning isn’t just an option anymore; it’s a necessity. From “new math” to new job categories, technology and bleeding-edge research will continue to keep any working person on their toes, lest we become irrelevant. (We all have that elder relative still using yahoo mail or, *gasp*, AOL…) Fast changes in tech mean we need to be fast to adapt, too. We need to be able to learn new skills pretty quickly. We need to be, in the words of Scott Young, “ultralearners”.

Building on the Deep Work concepts of intensity of time investment and focus, “Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career” goes into the an arsenal of tactics that, when deployed, can rapidly accelerate skill acquisition. These are boiled down below into five key steps.

  1. Make a plan
  2. Learn in context
  3. Drive retention
  4. Collect feedback
  5. Experiment

1. Make a plan

It is hard to learn in a targeted way without a specific goal in mind. Equally, it is hard to retain what you’ve learned if you don’t have a plan for exercising your knowledge. Thus, efficient learning requires you to have a clear picture of why you want to learn a skill, what your learning plan will consist of, an approach for how you will learn, and a plan for when you will exercise and maintain the skill once it is developed.

2. Learn in context

Young advocates for “directness,” or learning tied closely to the context you want to use it in. This method ensures that your learning will directly translate to real-life application.

3. Drive retention

Retention requires over-learning the most critical aspects of a skill, and then repeating exposure over time to make it stick. This will initially demand sustained focus, followed by re-enforcement with drilling and retrieval practice. Near-term learning is honed through drilling specific aspects that will aid performance. Long-term learning is enhanced by practicing retrieval of information, rather than passive review.

4. Collect feedback

Feedback can be outcomes-based, informational, or corrective. Outcomes, like a grade on a test, and informational feedback, like an error message when coding, fail to give corrective feedback on how to fix the problem. Regardless of which type of feedback you can access, strive to get immediate feedback, ideally via direct practice.

5. Experiment

Mastery requires originality, not just proficiency. Try experimenting with your techniques for learning, your style of application, and the resources or materials you draw on to find what works best for you.

Is ultralearning actually something new?

You might be wondering, how is this any different from what others, from Cal Newport in Deep Work to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, have been saying for years?

I think the emphasis on contextual learning combined with a detailed review of tactics places Young more in the realm of data-driven coach than thought leader. Contextualized learning has been trending in the education world, because it is linked to stronger learning outcomes and is seen as a mechanism for making youth and adults alike more work and future-ready than traditional classroom models. As someone who brute-forced her way through many a high school class, I wish I’d taken more care to optimize how I was learning as much as I optimized how much I was learning.