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Planted 02020-10-24

Master hard skills, outsmart the competition, and accelerate your career.

Originally posted on Oct 5, 2019

“I could go back to school, I thought. Enroll again. Spend another four years working toward a second degree. But taking out student loans and giving up a half decade of my life to repeat the bureaucracy and rules of college didn’t seem very appealing. There had to be a better way to learn what I wanted.”
Scott Young

In my research on how we might encourage and inspire new goals and initiate interest in learning new things, I encountered Ultralearning. I realized we need environments where willing, caring individuals can enroll in experiences to make learning the heart of what they do. Most of us are surrounded by chances to learn. Yet unless sold to us under a veil of credentials–or some other form of extrinsic motivation–we continue to do what we usually do. Immersing ourselves in procrastination and distractions in an eerily similar depiction of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World published in 1932.

Recognizing that the way we approach learning as a culture needs to change. That pursuing goals pushed by overbearing authority figures, curriculums, or employers from social pressure often leads to depression, anxiety, and the increasingly common choice of suicide. We need to encourage play and positive feedback, not authority and punishment. We have put tests before teaching children how to think properly. Everyone seems to feign ignorance at the apparent scam of textbooks–they have been for years. And the peer-reviewed journals that gatekeep between researchers and their peers, charging amounts even Harvard can’t afford to subscribe too, all to host PDFs on a website.

Even with the arrival of Khan Academy and countless other online learning platforms, they’re not enough to get our attention. I believe purpose is discovered through action, not thought. And people need to see an opportunity to make a change to be motivated to develop themselves. Without that, it seems as if most people don’t care. They aren’t curious about the world around them, books are relics of an older time, and they have no desire to learn new things. We need to find whatever it is in our peers that might yearn for more and encourage the learning that would enable them to seek to know more autonomously. We have to show that learning isn’t passing a test—and that’s what we’ve trained people to believe. We learn to pass the test, nothing more, nothing less.

The people who have chosen to be high performers, who decide to make a ruckus, understand that learning is at the heart of what they do. Who moved forward because they have a compelling vision of what they want to do, a deep curiosity, and seek the challenge itself. And they are forever seeking to see capabilities they didn’t know existed. Ultralearning provides a strategy for aggressive, self-directed learning, and below I have distilled the rules and tactics within Ultralearning.

Focus problems

  1. Procrastination

    At some level there’s a craving that drives you to do something else, there’s an aversion to doing the task itself or both. Most motives to procrastinate are silly when you verbalize them, yet that doesn’t stop them from ruling your life. Recognize when you are procrastinating.
  2. Distraction

    Distraction Source 1: Your Environment
    Distraction Source 2: Your Task
    Distraction Source 3: Your Mind
  3. Failing to create the right kind of focus

Direct tactics

  1. Project-based learning

    If you organize your learning around producing something, you’re guaranteed to at least learn how to produce that thing. Create something.
  2. Immersive learning

    Surrounding yourself with the target environment in which the skill is practiced. Join a community.
  3. Simulate as best as you can

    When direct practice is impossible, a simulation of the environment will work to the degree to which it remains faithful to the cognitive elements of the task in question.
  4. Increase the challenge

    Increase the challenge, so that the skill level required is wholly contained within the goal that is set. Put yourself into an environment where the demands are going to be extremely high, so you’re unlikely to miss any important lessons or feedback.


  1. Drill parts of difficulty or importance.

    Look for parts of the skill you’re learning that can be decomposed into specific moments of time that have heightened difficulty or importance.
  2. Drill applied cognitive components.

    Drill only one component when, in practice, others would be applied at the same time.
  3. Copy the parts you don’t want to drill.

    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. Drill one component of the skill.

    Spend more time on one component of the skill than you would otherwise.
  5. Start before you know. Go back, learn, and repeat,

    Start with a skill that you don’t have all the prerequisites for. Then, when you inevitably do poorly, go back a step, learn one of the foundational topics, and repeat the exercise.

Retrieval tactics

  1. Flashcards

  2. Free recall

  3. Rephrase notes as questions

  4. Generate challenges for yourself

  5. Cut off your ability to search for hints

Feedback tactics

  1. Reduce feedback noise to focus on the information you want to process.

    By modifying and selecting the streams of feedback you pay attention to, you can reduce the noise and get more of the signal.
  2. Avoid situations that always make you feel good or bad about your performance.

    Ultralearners carefully adjust their environment so that they’re not able to predict whether they’ll succeed or fail.
  3. Compare different study methods to see which works better.

    Evaluate the overall success of the strategy you’re using to learn. Decide when you should focus on the strategy you’re already using and when you should experiment with other methods.
  4. Make high intensity, rapid feedback situations.

    By throwing yourself into a high-intensity, rapid feedback situation, you may initially feel uncomfortable, but you’ll get over that initial aversion much faster than if you wait months or years before getting feedback.

Retention mechanisms

  1. Spaced repetition helps you remember with the least effort.

    Apply what is known as spaced-repetition systems (SRS) as a tool for trying to retain the most knowledge with the least effort.
  2. Emphasize learning the core set of information used frequently.

    Instead of learning a large volume of knowledge or skills evenly, you may emphasize a core set of information much more frequently, so that it becomes procedural and is stored for longer.
  3. Practice beyond adequacy.

    Additional practice, beyond what is required to perform adequately, can increase the length of time that memories are stored. Moving up a level to a more advanced skill enabled the earlier skill to be overlearned, thus preventing some forgetting.
  4. Mnemonics bridge difficult information.

    Converting a difficult association (between arbitrary sounds and new meaning) into a few links that are much easier to associate and remember. Mnemonics can act as a bridge for difficult-to-remember information, but it’s usually not the final step in creating memories that will endure forever.

Intuition rules

  1. Don’t give up on hard problems easily.

    Difficulty in retrieving the correct information—even when the difficulty is caused by the information not being there—can prime you to remember information better later.
  2. Understanding is an illusion, prove things to test your competency.

    The illusion of understanding is very often the barrier to deeper knowledge because unless that competency is actually tested, it’s easy to mislead yourself into thinking you understand more than you do.
  3. Always start with a concrete example.

    It isn’t simply how much time you spend paying attention to information that determines what you retain but, crucially, how you think about that information while you pay attention to it.
  4. Don’t fool yourself, ask your dumb questions.

Exploration tactics

  1. Copy, then create.

    Start by emulating another artist, you can use that foothold to venture further in your own creative directions.
  2. Force yourself to try different approaches.

    By solving a problem multiple ways or applying multiple solution styles to it, you will increase your breadth of expertise. Forcing yourself to try different approaches encourages experimentation outside your comfort zone.
  3. Introduce new constraints in how you can proceed.

    Creating specific constraints in how you can proceed encourages you to explore options that are less familiar to you and sharpens your underlying skills. How can you add limitations to force yourself to develop new capacities?
  4. Combine skills that don’t overlap.

    Combine two skills that don’t necessarily overlap to bring about a distinct advantage that those who specialize in only one of those skills do not have.
  5. Explore the extremes.

    Sticking to the middle and playing it safe isn’t the correct approach because that allows you to explore only a small subset of the total possibilities for your work.

Note: Reading Ultralearning and developing this page split 8h 40m.