Ultralearning: Book Review

3 Key Lessons For Mastering Hard Skills

This month we’re reviewing the book Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career by Scott Young.

What It Is

As Young describes in the book and on his website, ultralearning is a strategy for aggressive, self-directed learning.

Rather than spend a semester in a classroom listening to lectures, someone focused on ultralearning could create their own course of study for the topic, diving incredibly deep and moving rapidly through the material, demonstrating their competence while focusing on what is most important.

Of course, ultralearning doesn’t just have to be about learning computer science or anything we think about when “college course” comes to mind. It could be anything we want to learn. A new instrument, a language, a skill, a hobby. The purpose of ultralearning is to create a plan for yourself, dive deep, practice and apply.

In fact, the framework for ultralearning generally follows the below nine steps according to Young:

  1. Meta-learning - Learn how to learn and create a map

  2. Focus - Sharpen your knife

  3. Directness - Learn by doing

  4. Drill - Attack your weakest point

  5. Retrieval - Test to learn

  6. Feedback - Get feedback and don’t be shy

  7. Retention - Learn to recall and prevent forgetting

  8. Intuition - Dig deep before building up

  9. Experimentation - Get out of your comfort zone

It really becomes about creating a plan, learning by doing, practicing, and iterating to get it engrained.

Why It Matters

Young starts out the book giving several reasons why ultralearning is so important, and I agree with his assessment.

  • The world is changing rapidly, and we need to be able to change as well.

  • Average is over. Those who are able to change will command the best jobs and highest incomes. Part of that change will be mastering new skills quickly. Cal Newport made a similar observation in his book Deep Work:
    "What’s the secret to landing in these lucrative sectors of the widening digital divide? I argue that the following two core abilities are crucial:
    1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
    2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed."

  • Education is getting prohibitively expensive. To get a college degree you have to not only invest often insane amounts of money (leveraging your future), but incredible amounts of time. Is it worth it? As the cost rises, will it continue to be worth it?

  • Finally, our deepest happiness comes from realizing our potential. We can do that better through learning, developing, and mastering new skills. And ultralearning is a fast path to help us achieve that.

3 Key Lessons

The book was filled with lots of stories and useful tips. I want to focus on three main lessons that I took.

Be Goal Oriented

As I read through the stories of ultralearners and the steps for ultralearning, one of the main points I kept coming back to was to focus on the Why behind the ultralearning goal or project you are doing.

As I’ve thought back over learning endeavors I’ve taken, when I’ve had a clear Why or goal in mind, success is much easier to achieve. When I don’t, I tend to meander along and never really get anywhere.

For example, in the book, Young tells about an ultralearner who is constantly learning new languages. He travels to different countries, immerses himself in the language immediately, with the goal to not only become conversationally fluent, but to pass the C1 or C2 level tests to demonstrate proficiency. This is a clear goal and a great way to ultralearn.

I took a similar approach when I wanted to learn Angular several years ago. I took a course and did learning on my own as well, and chose several projects that I wanted to accomplish. I was able to do all of that and learn coding.

On the flip side, when I wanted to learn another coding language at another time, I didn’t apply the same principles. I just chose some videos without a clear goal other than “to learn”. That got me nowhere.

I like thinking about ultralearning within the framework of OKRs (this isn’t a concept Young used in the book, but I think it’s a good one). You can check out a few of my articles on OKRs like OKRs: Secrets to Success and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly for a refresher.

Basically, an OKR framework allows us to set a goal and define success:

This starts with the goal in mind and then defines how we’ll measure it. It gives us the principal areas to focus on achieving our goal (it be too broad to try to focus on reading and conversation, but it’s just for illustration).

Focus on Doing

When it comes to new skills, nothing beats actually doing. You can read about things or hear lectures about them, but until you put it into practice, you’ll never gain the experience.

That is wh y Principle 3 may be one of the most important, if not the most important: Go Straight Ahead. You have to do the thing you want to get good at.

The book was full of examples of ultralearners who focused on doing. This was also the author’s focus as well. When he wanted to learn four new languages, he traveled to four countries and immersed himself in the language completely to learn it. From day one, they were speaking the native language and nothing else, even if they only knew a few words.

That is also why goals and projects are so important to learning as we discussed above. Listening to videos can help, but until you code an app yourself, you won’t really learn very much. You can pick foreign words from a list, but until you speak the language and recall the words you need from memory, you won’t really learn it.

It’s Possible and Necessary

Finally, the most exciting lesson for me is that ultralearning is possible and necessary.

I’ve always believed in ultralearning, though I’ve never had a name for it. I’ve created learning projects for myself from coding to writing to woodworking. I’ve dived deep at times to learn as much as I could and been so much better for it.

I’ve also seen these results in others around me. As friends and family have taken on new challenges and immersed themselves, they’ve been able to learn much more in a shorter period than I ever thought possible.

So it’s exciting to have a field guide like Ultralearning to bring all of this information together. It shows that it is very possible to quickly learn a new language or a new skill by creating a strategy, diving in, and actually doing it.

Not only is it possible, but it is a necessary tool for the future. Many of us don’t have years to wait or to dedicate to skilling up. We have to do it rapidly and frequently. And we can. With all the tools and resources at our disposal today, there is no reason not to be ultralearners.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed the book Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career by Scott Young. I’m passionate about learning new skills for my career and for my hobbies (and for my general interest). If you know me, you know that I am constantly picking up new things I find interesting. I dive deep on some and not as deep on others. But with the steps outlined in Ultralearning, it helps me have a clearer path for how to do it better in the future.

Of course, not every skill is a match for ultralearning. But components of skills can certainly be broken down for ultralearning. And it is a powerful tool in the tool belt.

So if you’re interested, I’d recommend any product person check out the book and start skilling up.


Other Good Links

Grab Bag: Competition, Product Certifications, Timelines, Product Discovery, and More (podcast) - We dive into 5 questions we've received recently and give some thoughts: How much should I focus on competitors? How much will a certification help me? How do I deal with timelines from stakeholders? What do you think about Customer Advisory Boards? How do you work with UX and engineering on discovery work? Buckle up for a rapid fire episode.

Domain Dependence (article) - If you’re not a subscriber, you’re missing out on great articles like this each month: Domain dependence is the inability to transfer skills and knowledge from one field to another. In one setting, we may know it makes perfect sense to drop everything and run from an oncoming threat, but when all our training tells us to do something, we forget common sense.

Snow Crash (book) - I finished reading Snow Crash a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was originally worried because I found some other books from a somewhat similar time and genre to be big disappointments (sorry Neuromancer and Schismatrix). There is a lot of talk about the metaverse right now, and this is where the term was coined, so if for nothing else, it is worth a read for that.