Ultralearning by Scott H. Young [Actionable Summary]

This is a comprehensive summary of the book Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career by Scott H. Young. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.

Printable: Download this summary to read offline.

The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

Think that writing a best-seller or learning a new language is a monstrous task requiring months, even years to accomplish? Not if you have a playbook. The framework in this book will show you how to become a learning champion. Ultralearning by Scott H. Young will set you up on a path of self-actualization and mastery. The book offers a practical system that will show you how to master gigantic tasks in a short period of time.

The Core Idea:

Instead of spending weeks soaking up facts that will get you nowhere, Scott Young focuses on execution. He claims that everything can be learned in a shorter time frame than you think. Ultralearning is the manuscript that will save you hundreds of thousands of dollars on tuition fees, and not only. The book explains how you can use technology to master hard skills in a fraction of the time mentioned by bureaucratic institutions.


  • Don’t rely on institutions to learn new things. The current world allows us to create our own curriculum. Helping us master new things faster and cheaper.
  • Learn by doing. Immediately after you understand something new, apply it to a project, or create a situation where the new thing can be practiced.
  • It’s about continuously expanding your knowledge and inspiring the people around you to do the same.

5 Key Lessons from Ultralearning:

Lesson #1: We Falsely Think That Learning Things Should Happen Only in Schools

Instead of enrolling in college for four years and asking the bank to pay for the tuition, the author chose to do something else. He decided to accelerate the time needed to get an MIT degree by learning the material all by himself.

The result?

A degree, crowds cheering on Reddit, and people around the world offering jobs.

This is how the ultralearning journey began for the author. And it all started with the realization that you don’t necessarily have to enroll in college to learn something new. You can create your own learning schedule to master a particular topic.

Based on the stories in the book, it will not only take you less time but it will also cost you a fraction of what you’d otherwise have to pay if you enroll in college.

Sadly, this is not how we’re taught.

The general population is certain that you can’t understand anything, at least not proficient enough, if you don’t enroll in expensive colleges and listen to lectures for hours.

That’s not what the author thinks, though. According to him, everything can be learned, fast, if you’re willing to create your own learning schedule.

This is what he wrote after successfully completing his now-famous MIT Challenge: “For years, I had thought the only way to learn things deeply was to push through school. Finishing this project taught me not only that this assumption was false but that this alternate path could be more fun and exciting.”

Instead of collecting loans and spending half a decade in the classroom, in the book, Scott Young is suggesting to create your own schedule.

The world is changing and the institutions we previously used to master skills are becoming redundant. Nowadays, to stay competitive in the ever-changing world you need to realize these 3 things:

  1. Our understanding of learning is flawed.
  2. We should create our own learning schedule for the things we want to master.
  3. Learning anything we want it’s a lot more fun when we focus on 2.

Technology has made learning easier than ever, yet tuition costs are exploding. A four-year degree used to be an assurance of a decent job. Now it is barely a foot in the door. The best careers demand sophisticated skills that you’re unlikely to stumble upon by chance.” Scott H. Young

Lesson #2: In Our Fast-Paced World, Ultralearning is Becoming a Vital Skill

In our ever-changing world, the ability to adopt new skills, fast, is paramount for your success.

Graduating from college might serve you for a couple of years but with this rate of innovation, your fancy diploma won’t be enough in the years to come.

That’s where ultralearning comes into the scene. This bizarre method is not just about learning, it’s about staying relevant.

But what is ultralearning?

Scott Young describes ultralearning as, “A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.”

The word intense here is key. Ultralearning focuses on adopting new techniques, languages, skills in months, not in years. It might seem impossible. But the stories mentioned in the book prove otherwise.

The framework presented in the book will give you guidance if you decide to “teach yourself” something new that can potentially transform your life.

Here’s the short version of the key principles of becoming an ultralearner mentioned in the book:

Key Principles of Becoming an Ultralearner:

  1. Metalearning: First draw a map: The first step is rather untraditional. Before starting to learn, you’ll have to spend some time, as described by the author, “learning how to learn the subject.” This means researching the topic and creating your own curriculum that will assist you along your journey.
  2. Focus: Sharpen your knife: Concentration. That’s the secret ingredient to master skills in months, even in days, rather than in years. Your ability to focus on a single task will greatly increase your progress.
  3. Directness: Go straight ahead: This step is about doing what you want to learn even before you understand the fundamentals. Or as illustrated by the author, “The easiest way to learn directly is to simply spend a lot of time doing the thing you want to become good at.”
  4. Drill: Attack your weakest point: To become world-class, you need to fortify the weak links on your bag of tricks. Break down the hard, complex tasks you currently suck at. Then, practice till you’re better.
  5. Retrieval: Test to learn: Studies performed by psychologists prove that trying to recall information without looking at the text is the best way to retain information for a long period of time. Even if you’re not ready, test your skill without looking at your notes.
  6. Feedback: Don’t dodge the punches: Look forward to negative feedback. Expect it. Ask for it. Don’t cling on the nice words said by your parents. Seek criticism from outside people who don’t know you. Paying attention to comments that are unfavorable will uncover the path forward you were unable to see for yourself.
  7. Retention: Don’t fill a leaky bucket: It sounds bizarre, but learning is the easy part. Remembering what you’ve learned is where things get a little tricky. Repeating the fundamentals after some time should be included in your curriculum.
  8. Intuition: Dig deep before building up: Understand how things work, deeply. There is a difference between knowing the name of something and actually knowing something. Ask questions and imagine situations in your mind that fit your own understanding when others explain complex problems.
  9. Experimentation: Explore outside your comfort zone: Self-educating yourself in one field won’t be enough to become widely popular in a specific area. You need to try many techniques. To experiment with materials and methods. By doing so, you’ll start to see solutions where others see only problems.

Beyond principles and tactics is a broader ultralearning ethos. It’s one of taking responsibility for your own learning: deciding what you want to learn, how you want to learn it, and crafting your own plan to learn what you need to. You’re the one in charge, and you’re the one who’s ultimately responsible for the results you generate.” Scott H. Young

Lesson #3: Apply What You Learn In Projects Immediately To Understand it Better

Why schools are bad?

It’s not because the material is bad. Nor is the professor’s fault who is presenting to the students. The main reason the school system has been accused in the last few years is the lack of practice happening in the classrooms. Plus, the fact that the material taught there is outdated.

This unreliability of what should be the prime source for education is what formed the fellowship of the ultralearners.

As the author points out in the book, the default way of learning things from school and from books is not good enough to help you take the lead in a given field. The ordinary systems are simply not putting enough importance on applying what was learned. That’s why students and later even managers are unable to apply the principle learned from textbooks.

Ultralearners have a different approach when they tackle a particular field: they learn by doing. They strive to tie the newly learned thing to a certain project or a situation. And like everything else they do, this is done instantly after a new technique enters their orbit.

To achieve their insanely intense learning goals, ultralearners use the following tactics:

  • Tactic 1: Project-based learning: The premise of this tactic is simple. Instead of exposing themselves to even more information, ultralearners sign up for projects. Or in the words of the author, “if you organize your learning around producing something, you’re guaranteed to at least learn how to produce that thing.” So, learn how to write by writing, not by reading about how to write.
  • Tactic 2: Immersive learning: Want to learn a new language? Surround yourself with people who speak this language. Exposing yourself to people who practice what you want to learn is the key factor in learning something fast. If you’re unable to visit China to speak Chinese, find local communities or online forums where people are doing the things you want to master.
  • Tactic 3: The flight simulator method: Say you want to learn how to fly a plane, what will you do? The above-mentioned tactics are out of the question – you can’t practice and having a chat with pilots won’t be enough to learn the skill. What to do then? We’re left only with practicing on a flight simulator. The idea is to put yourself in situations where you need to make decisions based on the subject you want to learn.
  • Tactic 4: The overkill approach: Bold ultralearners take this route when they want to make progress fast. This approach is about presenting your work to the public early – even if you’re not ready. The idea is to sign up for a project that is above your current skill set. The pressure of showing your work to the public will force you to learn fast and also receive valuable feedback.

Lesson #4: The Ability To Learn Hard Things Quick is a Powerful Skill

A year without speaking English.

That’s how the author was able to learn 4 different languages in one year.

The plan was simple, at least on paper: Visit four countries, stay three months in each one. Once arrived, speak only the local language.

While Scott Young didn’t master all of the four languages of the countries he visited, he was able to understand and speak enough to go around.

Can you reach similar results?

This depends solely on your efforts. But the more projects you start and complete, the better you’d become at fast-paced learning (i.e. ultralearning).

In the last chapter of the book, the author offers a short step-by-step process that will help you properly set your ultralearning project:

  • Step 1: Do your research: Think ahead. Research the topic you want to understand. Create a resource list and map out the skills you’ll need to get better. Think about how you can practice the skill you’re learning as early as possible. Read interviews of people who already possess the skill you want to obtain to learn from them.
  • Step 2: Schedule your time: It goes without saying that you’ll have to invest time to complete your ultralearning project. You don’t have to quit your job or ditch your friends, but certain sacrifices have to be made. Plan when you’re going to learn in advance and avoid interruptions when in sessions.
  • Step 3: Execute your plan: Start even if you’re not ready. No plan is perfect. The important thing is to make progress fast. This will motivate you to keep going. Occasionally, stop and check whether you’re going in the right direction.
  • Step 4: Review your results: Analyze your results. What went right? What didn’t? What can you avoid in the future to prevent mistakes? Did you spend enough time learning? Did you practice enough? Both successful and unsuccessful projects can give you valuable feedback.
  • Step 5: Choose to maintain or master what you’ve learned: Learning a new skill is only the beginning. After you know how to, say, play the piano, you have to make the following decision: become even better or simply maintain the current level. After all, if you do nothing with the newly-learned skill, it will atrophy.

The goal of ultralearning is to expand the opportunities available to you, not narrow them. It is to create new avenues for learning and to push yourself to pursue them aggressively rather than timidly waiting by the sidelines.” Scott H. Young

Lesson #5: To Inspire The People Around You, Be an Advocate of Lifelong Learning

The modern world can be a problem.

It can be a problem for your willingness to educate your children. To inspire the people around you and to sustain a healthy rhythm of accomplished tasks.

Since the laid-back and “purchase as many goods as possible and share them online” lifestyle is becoming dangerously trendy. It can be hard to encourage the people around you, including yourself, to pursue better results.

The key, as described by the author, is fostering lifelong learning. Motivating people to tackle difficult learning projects on their own for as long as they are alive.

How can you promote such an ambitious goal and embed it in the lives of our already corrupted by technology day to day lives?

There are a couple of suggestions in the book you can try for yourself:

  • Suggestion 1: Create an inspiring goal: Scott Young states, “allow people to design their own learning goals that inspire them.” You can’t force people to get better, you can only show them the path and potentially inspire them along the way. Tie the skill you wish to educate to a compelling goal that sounds and looks interesting.
  • Suggestion 2: Be careful with competition: To continue pursuing a certain task, you need to feel that you’re good at it. To sense that you’re getting better. If you reach a state where you say stuff like, “I’m no good at math,” you have a problem. Make sure to compare yourself with the right group of people. People who are either equal, or slightly better than you. This will motivate you to push forward. If you start to compare with peers who already mastered the field you want to acquire, you’ll have difficulty convincing yourself to try harder as the task will seem impossible.
  • Suggestion 3: Make learning a priority: Outside school, learning is perceived as a nerdish activity performed by socially unequipped people. Yet, only by expanding your set of skills, you can find new opportunities in our ever-changing world. Here, by learning, the author doesn’t mean passively sitting on your sofa and consuming seminars. No. He’s encouraging an action-oriented approach where you get your hands dirty while you read/watch books and videos.

Learning, at its core, is a broadening of horizons, of seeing things that were previously invisible and of recognizing capabilities within yourself that you didn’t know existed.” Scott H. Young

Actionable Notes:

  • Determine Why, What, and How: During the metalearning phase, stop and consider the following things 3 things: 1) Why do you want to learn this skill? When you understand what’s your motive, you can remove parts of your curriculum that are not of your interest. 2) What type of knowledge and abilities do you need to be successful in this field? When you define success, you’ll build better learning habits. 3) How are you going to learn this skill? This question forces you to think about the learning methods you’re going to use and also when and where the actual learning will take place.
  • Start practicing on the first day: Learning something new requires time and effort. But the main reason our understanding of a new subject stretches over a long period of time is not because of the complexity of the topic. It has to do with how we approach practicing the new material. Scott Young explains that ultralearners, when wanting to adopt new skills, fearlessly dive into practicing the new activity. If they want to learn a new language, they will start speaking with strangers on the first day and will be careless that their pronunciation sucks initially.
  • Deconstruct the skill: A task seems too complex? Break it down to pieces and focus on one particular component. Famous ultralearners apply the so-called Direct-Then-Drill Approach. The strange-sounding technique is composed of three parts: First, practice the skill regardless of your clumsiness – write, if you want to be a writer. Second, analyze what just happened and isolate the components you’re still not good at. The final step is to apply what you just learned (in step two).
  • Give yourself a “struggle timer”: Dealing with seemingly unachievable tasks is part of life. If you always quit, though, you will never advance in your career. Fast learners apply a strategy called “struggle timer.” This tactic is exactly what the name suggests. You give yourself 10 more minutes to struggle on a problem. For instance, when you’re trying to solve a math problem for the last 30 minutes, instead of throwing the equation out of the window apply the struggle timer strategy. Work 10 more minutes on the task. The fictional deadline is usually enough to give you a new perspective to solve the problem. Even if you’re unable to solve it, at least you know that you tried.
  • Use technology: “For those who know how to use technology wisely, it is the easiest time in history to teach yourself something new.” Yes, there are apps and tools that are designed to steal our attention. Yet, there are others that will greatly reduce the time you need to learn. Once you figured out what you want to learn, find the best tools available online. Settle for the best ones and remove distracting apps that are fighting for your attention.

Commentary and My Personal Takeaway

Learning new skills and acquiring volumes of knowledge is necessary if we want to stay relevant. Paradoxically, real education happens outside the traditional school system. The only person who can teach you new things is no other than yourself.

Ultralearning by Scott H. Young is the kind of book I wish existed when I graduated from school. Instead of going to college, and spending four years supposedly learning how to become what is now mentioned on my diploma, I could have challenged myself to learn currently adequate topics in months.

While the key message of the book is worthy of every self-respecting learner, this book is not for everyone. It will surely be rejected by know-it-all graduates who praise the education system or from people who long for fast results. It’s for lifelong learners who are eager to immerse themselves in new fields they know nothing about. For committed people who strive to master both traditional and emerging fields.

The ultralearning framework mentioned in the book will allow you to single-handedly master topics you previously thought you’ll never learn.

The systematic approach provided by Scoot Young will allow you to create your own curriculum that will help you become a learning champion and upgrade your skill-set.

Key takeaway:

Aggressive self-education. Regular learning sessions. Practice what you’ve learned. These are a few of the things I’ll hold tight, pursue, and strive towards after reading the book.

Notable Quotes:

When people hear about geniuses, especially the iconoclastic ones such as Feynman, there’s a tendency to focus on their gifts and not their efforts.” Scott H. Young

If you want to pass a test, practice solving the kinds of problems that are likely to appear on it.” Scott H. Young

Ultralearners carefully adjust their environment so that they’re not able to predict whether they’ll succeed or fail. If they fail too often, they simplify the problem so they can start noticing when they’re doing things right. If they fail too little, they’ll make the task harder or their standards stricter so that they can distinguish the success of different approaches.” Scott H. Young

Trouble Saying No to Temptations?

Join Farview: A newsletter fostering long-term thinking in a world driven by impatience. Trusted by over 4,300 thinkers, Farview is a concise, thoughtfully organized newsletter helping you handle the self-sabotaging thoughts trying to corrupt you.

Share with others: