Book Summary: Ultralearning by Scott H. Young

Quick Summary: Ultralearning (2019) by Scott H. Young offers a new approach to intensive learning. Young outlines nine principles of ultralearning and highlights the most effective learning methods. He also discusses procrastination, focus, distraction, and directness, and finally suggests key factors for raising an ultralearner generation.

The most successful careers necessitate advanced skills that are never acquired by chance. Not only in computer science, but also in management, accounting, design, medicine, and nearly every other profession, knowledge and skill requirements are rising. Ultralearning puts you on the path to mastering the skills necessary for professional and personal success.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

Ultralearning Book Summary

The MIT Challenge

Scott Young was never a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instead, he studied business at Canada’s low-cost University of Manitoba, but after graduating, he felt he had chosen the wrong major. He aspired to be an entrepreneur and majored in business, believing that it would help him become his own boss.

Years later, he realized that a business major was primarily intended for those who wanted to work in the world of gray suits and operational procedures. However, in computer science, you learn to create things such as artificial intelligence, websites, and algorithms.

Creating programs had piqued his interest in business, and he was unsure what to do next. Around that time, he discovered an online class taught at MIT. Complete lectures, projects, and quizzes were included, as well as the actual tests used in class, along with answer keys. He made the decision to try it. To his surprise, the class was far superior to the majority of the classes he had paid thousands of dollars to attend in person at the university.

He wondered if this was the solution to his problem. Would it be possible to learn the material for a full degree if everyone could study the content of an MIT course for free? He looked for the MIT computer science curriculum and began nearly six months of extensive research for a project he called the MIT Challenge. It was far easier said than done, but he persevered.

Ultralearning and Its Benefits

Ultralearning is a strategy that enables learners to gain additional knowledge and skills. A strategy isn’t the only way to solve a problem, but it can be useful. Strategies may also be more appropriate in some situations than others, so using them is a choice rather than a requirement.

Ultralearning is both self-directed and intensive. You decide what and why to study. It is possible to be a completely self-directed learner while attending a specific college, but you could also choose to teach yourself. It is all about who takes the lead in self-directed learning.

All ultralearners go to great lengths to increase their learning efficacy during this intense process, such as fearlessly trying to speak a new language that they have only recently begun practicing. It’s clearly not easy. An ultralearner must devote time to a mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing task with few options for relief. Nonetheless, despite its challenges, ultralearning is critical for both your professional and personal lives.

It is a method of honing the skills that will make you proud of yourself, give you deep satisfaction, and give you confidence. It also bridges educational gaps for people who do not have access to schools or universities, often due to financial constraints.

Principles can help you find solutions to problems you’ve never encountered before. For example, if you understand all of the principles of a physics lesson, you should be able to solve any problem to which they apply. Principles assist people in making sense of their lives and the world in which they live.

Even when principles do not provide direct solutions to problems and challenges, they provide excellent direction. Ultralearning cannot be effective if only steps or protocols are followed. Metalearning, focus, directness, drill, retrieval, feedback, retention, intuition, and experimentation are the best ways to apply it.

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The term meta comes from the Greek word, which means “beyond.” It usually refers to something about itself or something dealing with a higher level of abstraction. Metalearning in this context refers to learning about learning. Metalearning enables you to gain knowledge more quickly and effectively.

To ensure the success of their projects, all ultralearners must understand how the subject of their study works, what set of skills must be mastered, and what techniques must be used. Metalearning is a map that guides ultralearners to their destination so that they do not get lost.

You can conduct research to improve your metalearning before and during a learning project in the short term. The more ultralearning projects you complete over time, the better your metalearning abilities will become. You’ll understand your learning capacity and how to manage your time and interests effectively. You’ll also have effective solutions for dealing with common problems.

Due to its self-directed and intense nature, ultralearning provides students with more knowledge than traditional education. A solid ultralearning project with high-quality resources and a clear understanding of what needs to be learned can be completed more quickly than traditional schooling. Long sessions may not be as effective as rigorous immersion in language acquisition. The same is true for coding, because you can tailor your projects to your specific needs and abilities rather than following a standardized approach in school.

However, you run the risk of making a bad decision. Metalearning research avoids this problem and assists you in identifying areas where you may have an advantage over traditional methods. Furthermore, as you begin to learn new things, you will become more confident and at ease with the learning process.

Finding and Maintaining Focus

The first major challenge that ultralearners face is developing the ability to focus, also known as procrastination: you put off a task you should do and waste time on something else. Procrastination is a common issue for most people. They avoid one task after another until they are forced to complete them all before the deadline.

This is when they begin to struggle to complete the job on time. People procrastinate because they want to do something else, they dislike the task, or both. The first step toward ending procrastination is to recognize when you’re doing it, because much of our procrastination occurs unconsciously. You procrastinate, but you don’t think of it that way. You believe you are simply taking advantage of a brief respite.

Make a mental note of each time you procrastinate. Determine whether you have a strong desire to avoid doing the activity or a stronger desire to do something else. You might even consider which emotion is the most intense at the time.

You can begin resisting the desire to procrastinate as soon as you become aware of your procrastination tendency. You may eventually reach a level of focus that you can automatically control and activate, allowing you to decide whether or not to take a break.

Maintaining focus is also a challenge. It is critical if you want to make significant progress while learning difficult things. Distraction can come from your surroundings, the subject of your study, or your own mind, emotions, and daydreams.

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The third principle of ultralearning is directness. It represents the notion that learning is inextricably linked to the context or situation in which you wish to apply it. There are numerous routes to self-education, but nearly all of them are indirect. Many of us are building the wrong skill portfolio to achieve our professional and personal goals.

We want to learn a language but would rather play games on phone apps than speak with real people. We want to work on collaborative, professional systems, but we always code scripts behind closed doors. We want to be great public speakers, so we buy a communication book instead of practicing.

The problem is the same in all of these cases: studying the subject directly seems too unpleasant, dull, or frustrating, so we try to do it through a book or app, hoping that it will eventually make us better at what we’re learning. In more traditional school learning, the opposing method is commonly used: memorizing information and studying theories and concepts that will never be applied. It can also be found on popular websites and applications such as Duolingo.


Drills are always a good idea because when learning an advanced skill, your cognitive abilities of effort, memory, and attention must cover all aspects of the study subject. When we write, for example, we must consider the logical aspects of our arguments in addition to the words we use and the writing style we use. This could lead to a learning trap.

To improve your performance in one subject, you may need to devote so much attention to it that your performance in other areas suffers. If you only evaluate yourself based on how much you improve across the board, you may find that your progress is slowing.

Drills assist you in resolving this issue by simplifying skills so that all of your cognitive abilities can focus on a single aspect of the skill. The conflict between direct learning and applying drills can be resolved by viewing them as alternate stages of a larger learning cycle.

Many academic learning methodologies generally ignore direct learning while relying excessively on skill development. Ultralearners, on the other hand, typically employ the Direct-Then-Drill method. They begin by attempting to directly practice a specific skill, then they directly analyze the skill and attempt to separate its components.

Finally, they return to direct practice to put what they’ve learned into action. The sooner you begin your learning process, the faster you will be able to complete this cycle. Moving from drills to direct practice is thus a good idea even when you’re just starting out.


You try to recall concepts and facts from your memory when you practice retrieval. Humans cannot know for certain how well they have remembered something. They rely on clues from previous experiences. Learning judgments are largely based on our ability to process what we’ve learned.

If the subject is too difficult, we feel as if we haven’t learned anything. A passive review strategy can help students outperform any retrieval method. Low-intensity learning strategies are typically based on easy retrieval. You learn better if you increase the difficulty of the task and try testing your acquired skills before you feel ready. However, the difficulty may become so difficult that retrieval appears impossible.

There are several benefits to deferring the first test of a newly learned subject. However, if you postpone the test for too long, all acquired information may be lost.

According to the retrieval concept, taking a test allows the brain to memorize and learn more efficiently. According to studies, the retrieval method not only develops and improves what you’ve learned so far, but it also helps you prepare for what you’ll learn next.

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Receiving Feedback

Feedback is one of the most stable aspects of the ultralearning strategy because it is the intensity, accuracy, and immediacy of the feedback that distinguishes the ultralearning strategy from traditional learning methods. K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist, discovered that receiving direct feedback for a performance is required to reach expert levels. Lack of feedback leads to stagnation, as you continue to practice a skill but do not improve. It can sometimes even cause your abilities to deteriorate.

It is unsurprising that feedback is important. We’re all aware of how receiving feedback on what we’re doing wrong or right can help us learn better. Research on feedback also shows that doing more does not always imply doing better. What is most important is the feedback provided. Informative feedback is useful, but it can have a negative impact on the learning process if it is misinterpreted.

When seeking feedback during the ultralearning process, you should be prepared for two outcomes. First, you run the risk of overreacting to feedback. Second, both positive and negative feedback can have a negative impact on your motivation if they are misinterpreted.

For these reasons, ultralearners should strive for feedback that is appropriate for their learning stage. The opportunities to seek better feedback vary depending on the subject being studied. Instead of looking for specific feedback for your project, consider all feedback types and how each can be useful.


For psychologists, students, and teachers, failing to access previously acquired information has always been a major issue. Vague memories also have an impact on your work. According to one study, the longer doctors work, the worse the care they provide because they forget more of what they learned in medical school over time.

Several theories have been proposed to explain why we forget. According to the first, memories simply fade away with time. This theory is logical, and it states that forgetting is an unavoidable feature of the human brain. However, this is not entirely true, because even if we have forgotten what we had for breakfast today, most of us still have vivid childhood memories.

Even if decay is a part of human memory, it is far from the only one. The second theory is interference, which proposes that our memories simply overlap based on how they are stored in the brain. Interference can be classified into two types: retroactive interference and proactive interference.

Retroactive interference occurs when newly acquired knowledge suppresses or deletes a previously acquired memory, whereas proactive interference occurs when previously acquired knowledge makes new knowledge more difficult to acquire. According to the third theory, a large portion of our memories are not lost, but rather inaccessible. Thus, in order to remember something, you must first retrieve it from your memory.

Forgetting is a normal and unavoidable feature of the brain. As a result, ultralearners learn to deal with it.


Too much time spent studying a subject is simply insufficient to develop deep intuition, so how can students ensure they develop enough intuition for it?

There is no correct answer, but a moderate level of experience and intelligence helps. When you devote yourself to working on a problem but begin to feel like giving up, simply set a struggle timer or ten more minutes to exert yourself further.

You’ll probably discover that if you think about it enough, you can easily solve the problem. Even if you don’t succeed, you’ll be able to recall the steps you took. This method can also be used for retrieval. Difficulty in accessing information can help you memorize it better in the long run.

Humans struggle to learn new things in the abstract. According to research, most people remember general and abstract rules after seeing several concrete examples. One memory study discovered that it is not only the amount of time you spend paying attention to information that determines what you remember, but also how you reflect on that information while paying attention to it.

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You should do more than simply follow others’ examples as your skills develop with ultralearning. You must experiment and find your own path. The initial stages of learning a new skill are the most supportive and motivating. This is the starting point for everyone.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, you’ll notice that your abilities may plateau. The initial stages of learning a skill are an accumulation act. You learn how to solve problems you didn’t know how to solve before. Experimentation replaces learning as mastery gradually becomes an unlearning procedure because you force yourself to step outside of your comfort zone and live new experiences.

Many skills necessitate not only high proficiency but also creativity. An outstanding mathematician is one who can solve problems that others cannot, rather than simply finding solutions to previously solved problems. Experimentation should thus focus on what you should learn next, rather than just how to learn what you are currently learning.

Prioritize Learning

Ultralearning projects are difficult. They necessitate a significant amount of effort, time, and planning, but the rewards are extremely satisfying. The ability to quickly learn new skills is a valuable skill, as each completed project leads to another. Typically, the first project requires the most effort, but a solid and well-researched plan gives you the confidence to pursue more difficult studies in the future.

Your starting point should be extensive metalearning research and a detailed plan, which will allow you to avoid many problems that waste time. All of the following elements must be included in your ultralearning plan: the topic you’re about to study, the main sources you’ll rely on, a standard adopted by others who have previously learned the same subject, activities to practice directly, drills, and backup information.

To be successful, your ultralearning task does not have to be a massively time-consuming challenge. Nonetheless, it will necessitate sacrifices and time investment. You should plan ahead of time how much time you are willing to devote to it rather than simply waiting for free time to work on it.

It is also possible to raise a generation of ultralearners. The first step is to begin with young children. Children should begin school no later than the age of three, because research indicates that a child’s brain is more flexible than an adult’s. The second step is to identify each child’s unique interest. A child, for example, could study mathematics, languages, and sports while focusing primarily on chess. The third step is to incorporate practice into children’s daily lives.

You can start creating a safe environment that supports ultralearning at any age by setting an inspiring goal, keeping an eye on competition, and, most importantly, prioritizing learning.

Ultralearning Review

Scott H. Young has been a regular blogger on his blog for over a decade. He primarily writes about productivity, careers, and learning, and he is best known for writing about difficult projects and learning four languages in a year. He attempted to learn the entire MIT computer science curriculum without ever attending the university. Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outwit the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career is a national best-seller.

I believe that the book is a supplement rather than a replacement for anyone interested in mastering ultra learning. So if you are interested in the book, I recommend you take the course as it explains these principles more clearly than the book.

Compared to his course, the book lacks the directness and transfer of how to implement these principles. The course has a much more practical approach. Therefore, I give the book four stars.

About The Author

Scott H. Young’s writing style can sometimes become overly complicated, as he employs unnecessary complex structures rather than simple sentences that aid comprehension of his material. He begins most chapters by drawing inspiration from notable intellectuals, then uses their lives to illustrate his points, mentioning Vincent van Gogh, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, and others. He backs up his claims with research. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, wrote the foreword to Ultralearning.

Ultralearning Quotes

“Your deepest moments of happiness don’t come from doing easy things; they come from realizing your potential and overcoming your own limiting beliefs about yourself.”


“By taking notes as questions instead of answers, you generate the material to practice retrieval on later.”


“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”


“One rule I’ve found helpful for this is to restrict myself to one question per section of a text, thus forcing myself to acknowledge and rephrase the main point rather than zoom in on a detail that will be largely irrelevant later.”


“Metalearning: First Draw a Map. Start by learning how to learn the subject or skill you want to tackle. Discover how to do good research and how to draw on your past competencies to learn new skills more easily.”

View our larger collection of the best Ultralearning quotes. 

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