Book notes

Ultralearning by Scott H. Young

Read in August 2019

"In chemical reactions, there are rate-determining steps which affects the time required to complete the reaction. Your weakest point is the rate-determining step."

Principle 1: Metalearning

Should answer three questions: WHY, WHAT, HOW


There are two types of motivations: instrumental (learning it to find a new job) and intrinsic (learning it just because). Knowing that will also help you to determine HOW. Expert interviews would help if it’s more like an instrumental motivation.



Anything needs to be understood, not just memorized.

Example: Derivatives for Calculus


Anything needs to be memorized. You don’t need to understand them deeply as long as you recall them in correct situations.

Example: Trigonometric identities in Calculus


Anything needs to be practiced. They may not require deep understanding.

Example: Riding a bicycle



  • Finding the common ways in which people learn the skill or subject.
  • For academic stuff: MIT, Stanford, Harvard curriculums.
  • For softer stuff: Reddit

Emphsize / Exclude

  • Derive the path of learning than modify it with respect to your needs.


  • It is accurate to allocate 10 percent time of the learning process to the research.
  • It is not an hard requirement to do the research at the beginning, sometimes it helps to review the process made.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

  • More time you invest in an activity (such as more research), the weaker and weaker the benefits will be as you get closer and closer to the ideal approach.
  • If you keep doing research, eventually it will be less valuable than simply doing more learning, so at that point you can safely focus on learning.

Principle 2: Focus

Recognize where you are, try to start small


  • To avoid it, try to develop awaraness first.
  • Why? -> the task you actually want to do is harder so you want to delay it by doing easier stuff.
  • To solve it -> try to start working on the actual task by convincing yourself for just 5 mins.
  • If you start slacking off after 5 mins, next step to try is POMODORO


  • Try to set a schedule for your tasks (was also mentioned in Atomic Habits)
  • If your schedule is too tight, remember that you can always use 5 mins or Pomodoro

Sustaining Focus

  • 50-60 min is a good interval for chunks
  • if you have more time, it might be better to split it for several topics


  • Environment
  • Multi-tasking
  • Task itself might be hard

Arousal: phsycological / physiological state of being awaken

  • Complex tasks -> low arousal, quiet environment
  • Simpler tasks -> coffee shop

Principle 3: Directness

We want to speak a language but try to learn mostly by playing on fun apps, rather than conversing with actual people.

We want to work on collaborative, professional programs but mostly code scripts in isolation.

We want to become great speakers, so we buy a book on communication, rather than practice presenting.

In all these cases the problem is the same: directly learning the thing we want feels too uncomfortable, boring, or frustrating, so we settle for some book, lecture, or app, hoping it will eventually make us better at the real thing.

Story of Vatsal Jaiswal

Moves to Canada from India, gets an architecture degree from a design school where they do more therotical education. Tries to get a job but gets rejected repeatedly. Decides to build his portfolio by focus on learning what is actually needed in the industry. Gets a job in a print center who serves mostly to the architecture offices. Studies the blueprints, learns a software by designing his own building.

During the MIT challange, the biggest problem was not to have no educational material, it’s not having any problem sets to study for the final.

The Transfer Problem (mostly on traditional education, it’s hard to use something you learn in classroom context in the real life context) is solved by directness in two ways

  • You actually learn in the real context.
  • If you discover a trick while learning something in real life context, you can use that trick while learning other stuff as well. (using quick translator apps on your phone while trying to speak a new language) -> this is a very powerfull side of our generation actually.

Even if you learn something specific, you may still need to understand the concepts that it’s tied to in a broader way. If you want to master it, you need to keep going :)

  • Project Based Learning
  • Immersive Learning: Surrounding yourself with the target environment which the skill is practised
  • Overkill Approach: Putting yourself in an environment which has higher demands than just possitive feedback :) Taking harder tests than your skill level.

Principle 4: Drill

It’s much more pleasant to spend time focusing on things you’re already good at. Teasing out the worst thing about your performance and practicing that in isolation takes guts. The difficulty and usefulness of drills repeat a pattern that will recur throughout the ultralearning principles: that something mentally strenuous provides a greater benefit to learning than something easy.

Example of Benjamin Franklin: chooses a topic (writing), divides it to sub-topics (structure, vocabulary, grammar) tries to achieve a level of confidance in one without worrying too much about the others (writing articles which has good layout but bad grammar) then starts drilling on next topic. Sub-takeaway: he tries to use Socratic method, avoiding “abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation,” instead focusing on being the “humble inquirer and doubter.”

In chemical reactions, there are rate-determining steps which affects the time required to complete the reaction significantly. In learning, your weakest point is the rate-determining step. If you drill on your weaker points, it’ll improve your overall competence and will help mastering every aspects of that skill.

Ultralearner approach: direct-then-drill

  • Practise the skill directly, craft something.
  • Analyze the skill and isolate the components, try to determine the rate-determining steps.

Designing drills

  • Time slicing
  • Cognitive components
  • Copycat (take something and overwrite the part that you’re drilling)
  • Magnifying glass (spending more time on the drill that you wouldn’t normally)
  • Prerequiste chaining

Principle 5: Retrieval

Trying to retrieve an answer that doesn’t yet exist in your mind is like laying down a road leading to a building that hasn’t been constructed yet. The destination doesn’t exist, but the path to get to where it will be, once constructed, is developed regardless.

Testing experiment

Three groups of students have been told to study by

  • passively reviewing the resources
  • test yourself (performed better)
  • create a diagram of main concepts

When you review something passively, you don’t get any feedback about what you know and don’t know. Since tests usually come with feedback, that might explain why students who practiced self-testing beat the concept mappers or passive reviewers.

What should be retrieved?

  • formulas, implementation details..
  • having seen multiple ways to solve a problem is better than knowing one and being a master of the solution.

How to practice

  • Flash cards
  • Free recall (Feynman Technique)
  • Self generated challanges