A Book Review of ‘Ultralearning’

Today, I wanted to share a little book review: Scott Young, Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career, Harper Business 2019. (Book website) It won’t be an exhaustive review, but mostly about my one key insight and some reflection on it. If you want a summary, there are countless ones readily available out there already. The following quote sums up the spirit (and main claims) of the book quite well, but it’s really a book packed with solid methods, not just promises:

Is it really possible to get an MIT-level education without attending MIT? Or to learn a new language to the point of becoming fluent and conversant in just three months? Or to develop your own video game from scratch and make it a commercial success without being a professional game developer working for a big studio? (source)

Apart from the fact that the whole philosophy of ‘Ultralearning’ can be seen as somewhat problematic (see a little reflection about that here), it’s not like this approach to learning (aggressive, self-directed, including lots of deliberate practice and quick feedback, learning a cool skill in a short time) is exactly new in 2020. Many examples of so-called ‘ultralearners’ are known in the community if you care to look it up: Such as the language guy Benny Lewis, Josh Kaufman’s book How to learn anything in 20h and Tim Ferriss’ philosophy of the minimum effective dose (MED) and skill deconstruction (DiSSS method).

 

The method’s downsides

Today, I only want to share with you my biggestst takeaway from the book. And that is “overlearning”. Towards the end of the book, Young addresses how you can keep the newly learned skills fresh. And as it turns out, for sustained success, you need to go back to “classic” methods such as spaced repetition. The promise of big success in a minimum amount of time and effort is dead at this point which makes one thing clear: If you actually want a real skill, a little sprint-style project isn’t enough. You’ll forget most of it. These sorts of admissions crop up in all of the above mentioned ultralearning guys, such as Tim Ferriss. So while ultralearning is a nice way to get started and deep dive into learning a skill, it’s not for really learning a skill. Meaning that you have to realize that “getting started learning a skill” and “actually and sustainably learning a skill” are not necessarily the same things at all and may require different methodology altogether. This is a classic example where (possibly intentionally) imprecise use of language/terms is used to obscure what is actually meant in the definitions of success in ‘ultralearning’.

Most of these books, in the end, lead us to the conclusion that it’s your defintion of success which matters. The main premise of Josh Kaufman’s book is that you don’t need a 10.000 hour rule because most people don’t want to achieve mastery. They just want to be able to play “The four chord song” on the ukulele (which is achieveable in 20h). Tim Ferriss suggests 3 months lifestyle designer holidays (mini-retirements) abroad where you focus on learning one langauge and one (possibly region-specific) skill. Whether you can keep any of those skills afterwards is not really part of the debate.

 

The key takeaway: Overlearning

In a few posts, you have heard me wondering about programming success. I have tested all the methods for quick learning and wasn’t really convinced. I seemed to end up with lots of passive knowledge which was completely un-actionable. Like with the many (human and computer) languages I have looked into, I have only passive knowledge left because, as it seems to me in retrospect, I’d never really gotten myself any active knowledge. This is where Ultralearning is useful (by asking for “directness” and immediate feedback and so on). But what really turned things around for me was one of the possible ways of keeping knowledge sharp: Overlearning.

This is the reason why my French is back straightaway after a few days of practice even after not speaking for a year but my Ancient Greek will be gone beyond recall. Because I never got to the point of “Overlearning” in Greek. Thus, using the quickest possible intro to a language will not guide you towards the desired results (which we could have guessed but ah, wishful thinking…). Because, at least for me, what I want is to have that new skill “available” like my French which never really goes away. Or my XSLT skills. It was just pretty interesting to me that my key takeaway ended up being something almost antithetically opposed to many of the more alluring sides of Ultralearning (such as rapid skill acquisition without much repetitive boring skill honing): Overlearning. Just let that sink in.

 

Summary

Young seems like a reasonable guy who as achieved some nice results. I don’t like the whole “sales aspect” of these ultralearning communities (see the reflection linked above) but the methods he teaches are solid of their own (without the surrounding “ideology”) and the motivations he states are good. In the end, new approaches to (self-directed) learning are always a good thing. However, I still maintain that most of the so-called and self-professed ‘ultralearners’ out there are really just masters at downscaling goals,  redefining success, setting the bar of expectatins really low and marketing small successes as miracles, conveniently neglecting the obvious biggest downside that there is not much use learning a skill if you forget 95% of it within the two weeks that follow…

Redefining success isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it can be a very useful tool in skill acquisition, especially as Kaufman shows, to lower the entrance barrier and scale down paralyzing expectations. But no matter how the ‘life hackers’ twist and turn: You can’t hack life. There is no shortcut or cheat code or “hack” or easy way to things worth having. Only Deep Work can produce desirable results, which are difficult to replicate, as opposed to the superficial work whose results anyone can replicate in no time (thus not skills valuable in the market). The lifesytle designer community suffers from the misconception that everyone can have the success they sell. But not everyone has the skills (!) to create a wildly successful business which works for itself with just 4h of maintenance work per week (see Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You).

This insight that we need some ‘overlearning’ to commit new skills to long-term “muscle” memory reinforces the idea of daily practice I have repeated many times already. But it also consoled me that things just take longer and there really isn’t a shortcut.

So much for now,

best,

the Ninja

 

References

Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016.

Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, Harmony 2009 (book website).

Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life, 2012. (book website, this is the book about meta-learning)

Josh Kaufman, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast, Portfolio 2014 (book website).

Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group 2012 (book website & a review).

Cal Newport, Deep Work. Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group 2016 (book website).

Scott Young, Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career, Harper Business 2019. (Book website)

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