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Book Summary – Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career

Ultralearning - Book summary

Can you get an MIT-level education without attending MIT, become fluent in a new language in 3 months, or develop a multi-million video game by yourself? The answer is “yes”. In this book, Scott Young shares the strategies and tactics used by ultralearners to master hard skills more quickly, accelerate their careers, become more productive and fulfilled. In this free Ultralearning summary, we’ll be giving a quick overview of the 9 ultralearning principles.

Ultralearning: An Overview

Ultralearning is a strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge in a self-directed, intense way. It’s about deciding what you want to learn, then committing to a period of deep, focused learning activities that push you to your limits. That’s the best way to get in flow and compress your learning into the shortest possible time.

Young was interested in computer science, but couldn’t afford to attend MIT. So, he embarked on a self-education project, researching free MIT classes online, focusing on the final exams and working backward to figure out what he had to learn and how. In just 1 year, he could pass the final exams for the MIT computer science programme. He went on to learn 4 languages in 12 months, and taught himself to draw portraits in 30 days.

Along the way, he met and researched other “ultralearners”, including polyglots who speak many languages, mathematical geniuses, game show winners, etc. Based on his observations and experience, Young identified the 9 common principles in this book.

The ability to learn quickly is probably one of the most critical skills for success in our fast-changing world. Not only can you advance your career (or switch careers) easily, you can also master anything you’re interested in, to become more confident, productive and fulfilled.

The 9 Ultralearning Principles

Now, let’s take a look at the 9 ultralearning principles. Basically, you can’t follow a fixed sequence of steps since every topic/area is different. However, you can apply these principles to speed up your learning process in any area.

Ultralearning summary - Overview of the 9 principles
We’ll dive into the 1st principle in detail and give an overview of the rest. Do get a copy of our full Ultralearning summary for the full details of all 9 principles!

1. METALEARNING: Start with a Road Map

The first step in any ultralearning project is to figure out the most effective and efficient way to learn that subject.  Unlike formal education (which usually adopts a one-size-fits-all approach to cater to different types of students), you can customize your self-learning project to your specific needs/abilities. By investing some time upfront to develop a learning map, you will (i) learn much faster for your current project, and (ii) improve your long-term learning ability to learn faster in any area.

Develop your Metalearning Map with 3 Specific Questions:

• Define why you want to learn that subject. Your goal or desired outcomes will determine the type of skills and knowledge you need. Try interviewing experts in the field to refine your learning plan. For example, you can speak with a successful architect to confirm if learning design skills will indeed help you to become a good architect. Don’t be afraid to reach out to experts via social media, email or other channels: many of them will be willing to do a 15 minute phone/video call to help you.

• Once know your “why”, you can figure out what you must learn.

(i) On a piece of paper, create 3 columns labelled: concepts, facts, and procedures. Concepts are the ideas you must understand (e.g. to learn math, you must grasp concepts like equality and symbolic representation).  Facts are the things that you must memorize (e.g. languages involve vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar). Procedures are the actions that must be practiced.

(ii) Identify your bottlenecks, i.e. the concepts, facts and procedures that are the hardest for you. Research the tools/methods to help you tackle those bottlenecks, so you have a more realistic learning map.

• To figure out how to learn what’s required:

(i) Benchmark how people typically learn that subject. For example, you can research how it’s usually taught in schools or universities, examine the topics in textbooks, or course syllabi found on websites.

(ii) Modify the default curriculum, by emphasizing or excluding certain topics to suit your personal needs/preferences. For example, if you’re learning French because you’re going to Paris in 2 weeks, you’d want to focus more on pronunciation than spelling.

As a rule of thumb, invest about 10% of your expected learning time into the initial research and planning. Then, regularly review your progress to see if diminishing returns have set in. If so, pause to research new tools/techniques.

Here’s a quick visual recap of Principle #1:

Ultralearning summary - Create your metalearning map

2. FOCUS: Sharpen your Ability to Concentrate

Focused learning delivers superior results. You can improve your ability to focus through practice, by dedicating chunks of time to focus fully on what you’re trying to learn. In our complete Ultralearning summary, we’ll explain how you can overcome the 3 key obstacles to concentration (procrastination, distractions and variety).

3. DIRECTNESS: Go Straight into Application

Consider the situation/context where you want to apply your learning. Then, plunge right in and acquire hands-on experience by learning to do the tasks in a similar situation. Don’t settle for other convenient or comfortable activities. Do get specific tips, approaches and examples about direct practice from the complete Ultralearning summary!

4. DRILL: Attack Your Weakest Point Relentlessly

In any process, a bottleneck can slow everything down, e.g. a limited vocabulary can hinder your fluency in a language. This principle is about isolating your key constraint, so you can focus on improving the 1 thing that’ll enhance all other aspects of your skill.  Check out the full 17-page summary to learn more about the “Direct-Then-Drill” strategy, and how you can design effective drills.

5. RETRIEVAL: Use Self-Testing to Learn

Retrieval practice is about trying to recall as much information as possible from memory, without referring to your materials. You learn much better when you (i) push yourself to recall info instead of reviewing it passively, and (ii) test yourself before you feel confident. In our full Ultralearning summary, we explain what’s “desirable difficulty”, and how you can start using several useful methods for retrieval practice and self-testing.

6. FEEDBACK: Don’t Dodge the Punches

Feedback can be really painful and uncomfortable, but don’t avoid constructive criticism. Learn to manage your ego, and filter out the useful inputs from the noise so you know what to focus on. Find out more about the 3 main types of feedback (outcome feedback, informational feedback, and corrective feedback) and learn the tactics to get better feedback.

7. RETENTION: Stop the Leakages

To excel in any area, you need to remember stuff. Yet, our brain forgets things quickly and consistently, like a leaky bucket. Understand why you forget things, so you can deliberately use counter-strategies to remember things for the short-term and long-term. In our complete Ultralearning summary, we’ll explain the 3 reasons we forget and how ultralearners counter that with 4 key mechanisms to improve their short-term and long-term retention.

8. INTUITION: Dig Deep, then Build Up

True masters don’t just memorize things. They immerse themselves in a subject so thoroughly that they form mental models of how things really work. Mastery comes from a deep understanding of each component, how they’re inter-related, and what the big picture looks like.  Learn (i) the 4 rules to develop intuition, as well as (ii) the “Feynman Technique” to understand any problem/idea (Scott Young named this approach after the genius mathematician Richard Feynman).

9. EXPERIMENTATION: Explore Beyond your Comfort Zone

When you’re learning a new skill, it’s usually enough to follow someone who’s more successful. As you become more proficient, there’ll be fewer people who can teach you. You’ll also start to encounter new challenges that your predecessors haven’t solved. To become a true master, you have to unlearn old methods and assumptions, explore new possibilities, expand/combine different skills/techniques, and discover your strengths and signature style. Get our full Ultralearning summary bundle to find out how you can (i) push beyond your comfort zone with 3 types of experimentation, and (ii) strategies to get the most from your experiments.


Your first ultralearning project is crucial as it will set the foundation for your future projects. In our complete 17-page summary, we’ll also outline the steps/tips from the book to help you maximize your chances of success.

Getting the Most from Ultralearning

In this article, we’ve briefly outlined some of the key insights and strategies you can use to achieve desired change. For more examples, details, and actionable tips to apply these strategies, do get our complete book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 17-page text summary, and a 29-minute audio summary.

Ultralearning summary - book summary bundle

The book includes many examples of Young’s own ultralearning projects as well as insights from other ultralearners in various fields. The book ends with a detailed case study of how the 9 principles were used by László Polgár to nurture his daughters into famous chess prodigies. He also shares ideas on how to foster ultralearning at home, school or the workplace, and includes an appendix on his ultralearning projects. You can purchase the book here for the full details, or visit for more resources.

For more ideas about learning and mastery, do check out our Make it Stick summary (to better understand the science of learning and how the 9 principles above relate to the way our brain works). Read the Mastery book summary to understand how the most famous people in the world (like Charles Darwin or Leonardo da Vinci) typically spend a lifetime honing their skills and attaining mastery.  Or, check out The First 20 Hours summary to find out how to learn new skills in just 20 hours!

About the Author of Ultralearning

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career is written by Scott Young–a writer, entrepreneur, and blogger, focusing on learning, productivity, career, habits and living well. His work has been featured in TEDx, The New York Times, Lifehacker, Popular Mechanics and Business Insider. Young graduated from the University of Manitoba and Montpellier Business School.

Ultralearning Quotes

“If you can master the personal tools to learn new skills quickly and effectively, you can compete more successfully in this new environment.”

“With ultralearning, deeply and effectively learning things is always the main priority.”

“Most motives to procrastinate are silly when you verbalize them, yet that doesn’t stop them from ruling your life.”

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

“Retrieval works to enhance future learning, even when there is nothing to retrieve yet!”

“Ultralearning isn’t simply about maximizing feedback but also knowing when to selectively ignore elements of it to extract the useful information.”

“Sometimes the easiest way to improve feedback is simply to get a lot of it a lot more often.”

“To retain knowledge is ultimately to combat the inevitable human tendency to forget.”

Click here to download the Ultralearning summary & infographic

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