Scott Young shares innovative methods to learn new skills more efficiently and effectively.
- Foundational principles for mastering skills more effectively
- The importance of “meta-learning”
- The Feynman Technique and other approaches to accelerate learning
Scott is a writer, programmer, traveler and an avid reader of interesting things. For the last ten years he’s been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better. He doesn’t promise he has all the answers, just a place to start.
- Scott’s Book: “Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career”
- Scott’s MIT Challenge
- Scott’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Scott’s website: ScottHYoung.com
Resources mentioned in the show:
- Online Class: MIT OpenCourseWare
- Technique: Feynman Technique
- Study: Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping
- Book: “The Enigma of Reason” by Hugo Mercier
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Scott, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Oh, it’s so great to be here.
Well, I have many questions for you but I want to start with hearing the tale of how you completed MIT’s four-year computer science program in one year. Like, what even led you to think that’s a good idea, and how did you pull it off, and what were the results?
Yes, so this actually brings me back. This was about eight years ago. I just graduated from university and I had studied business, I met a lot of people who you go to school and you study something, and you realized, “Oh, wait a minute. Actually, this wasn’t really what I wanted to get out of it.” I was thinking, “Well, I should go into business.” I kind of have these ideas that one day I might run a business.
I go in and I take a bunch of business classes and find that, well, actually, most of business schools is how can you be a good little middle manager in a large company and not really so much about running your own or starting your own things.
And, at that time, I was thinking back to when I was a freshman and I was contemplating either going into business or studying computer science. And now, sort of in retrospect, have felt like the better choice because in computer science you, actually, learn to make things, you make programs and algorithms and scripts and websites and apps and all sorts of things like that.
And so, I was thinking about maybe going back to school, maybe I should go and do another degree and postpone my life. And around this time, I stumbled upon this class that was taught by MIT and uploaded on their MIT open course sort of platform. So, it was completely free, it was an actual class that MIT really taught, and they just uploaded some of the materials from it, so the lectures, assignments and solutions, exams and solutions.
And as I was going through this, I kind of thought this little lightbulb moment on my head of, “Well, if you could do a class, maybe you could try to do something like this for an entire degree.” And so, this sort of began this kind of research process, I spent several months putting it together of trying to figure out, “Okay, like how can I use the material that they put online? What gaps do I have to fill? What kind of alterations do I need to make?”
But the end result was sort of constructing this curriculum that was pretty close to what an MIT student would actually take. Just a few little minor deviations or substitutions from one class to another but the scope of the content was pretty much the same. And so, I decided to start going through this. And I was going through some of the test classes, I found that, “Well, wait a minute. When you actually take a class online, you do it with this process where it’s self-paced.”
There’s actually some places that you can maybe even do things a little bit faster. So, it sounds a little crazy when I say that. How could it possibly be faster? Isn’t studying in MIT really difficult? And it certainly is. But there are some definite places where the way that you do it in traditional classrooms could be made a little bit more efficient.
So, one of the instances of that is that when you’re taking lectures, for instance, you sit in the classroom and you have to sit through the whole thing, even the parts where the professor is getting some water and getting the slides set up and all that sort of thing. Whereas, when you’re watching a video, you can watch it at, let’s say, 1.5 times the speed. And if you miss anything, or get confused, it’s not a problem because you just hit pause and rewind.
And I found there were a lot of little places that you can make those sorts of adjustments and that, combined with a lot of hard work, made me think of trying something a little bit more ambitious. And so, I did this project I called the MIT Challenge, which was to try to pass the final exams and do the programming projects for MIT’s computer science curriculum, but instead of going to MIT, just take it on my own and try to acquire the knowledge and skills without having to pay tuition and go to Massachusetts.
And how did it turn out?
So, the project went great. I think it went pretty close to how I expect it. I mean, it was a lot of work. I did work very hard over those 12 months, so I can’t certainly just gloss over that because it is a lot of work to learn those classes. But, in the same sense, I spent 12 months and I finished the classes as I anticipated, and I did the projects the way that I wanted to do them.
And so, I sort of ended, after that year, with having kind of acquired some facsimile or some close approximation of a computer science degree without having to spend the same amount of time and certainly a lot less money to actually get that education.
And your marks or whatever, in terms of the final exams were kind of on par with a C or better levels to that?
Well, that’s a sort of deep question there. It’s like, “How do you grade yourself and evaluated?” So, for a lot of the exams, there’s no, “This is an A grade, this is a B grade.” As you probably know in a lot of technical classes, they even grade on a curve for some exams. I talked to a friend who’s a professor, and he says, some of the exams where even a 35% is a pass just because the amount of content that you have to do in such a short period of time, you just can’t finish the whole exam.
And so, my goal for the exam was just relatively coarse. It wasn’t a super fine grading that I got, like, this was an A+ or this was only a C+ but rather it was just to see if I could get over a 50% benchmark in most of the classes. So, for some of the classes, I was closer to that benchmark, and for others I got 80%, 90%. It just sort of depended on the specifics of the actual class. But I uploaded all of the exams, I actually did, to the website where I put this page so anyone can look at what I actually did on those exams. You don’t just have to take my word for it.
And one day someone is just kind of grade you hard. This is like the weird recurring dreams I have. Like, I’m back in high school, you know, it’s going to come for you. That’s pretty cool.
Well, I’m sure, yeah.
So, let’s hear about a couple of those, while we’re in the story, a couple of those tips and tricks. So, one was 1.5x the video speed, another was just a ton of hours of your life invested doing this stuff.
Any other particular things that made that possible?
Well, so there are some other things that you can consider doing when you’re doing a class like this or when you are working on something in a self-paced way. So, one common thing you’ll do in class is that you have graded assignments. And because there are graded assignments, you have to go from start to finish, complete the whole thing, and make sure it’s as good as possible because, of course, you’re getting marks for it. Hand it in, and then maybe a week later someone will grade it and give you some feedback. Whereas, if you’re doing a self-graded assignment, you can do it one question at a time.
Now, this obviously makes it a little hard to actually grade it because doing an assignment from start to finish is, strictly speaking, harder because you’re not learning in between. If you’ve got a question wrong because you have the wrong formula, you don’t get to look at the solution to see what the right formula was, which you can then use on questions two, three, etc.
But from a learning perspective, I don’t see it as a disadvantage. It’s actually an advantage because you can go through and you don’t have to wait as long to get those feedback cycles to make improvements. So, that was one of the things I did.
I know from the show notes, when we’re talking, of some of the questions you want to ask me. Another thing we were talking about was techniques like the Feynman Technique and other tools to help you break down kind of complicated subjects. But these are all sorts of things that regular students can apply as well.
Okay, very nice. Well, let’s just get into maybe the goods. So, Ultralearning is kind of your brand and book title here and we have master hard skills, outsmart competition, accelerate your career. It sounds like the stuff you love to do here. So, can you just sort of lay it out for us, like what’s the key difference between, I guess, ultralearning and normal learning?
Yeah, so in some ways I think the MIT Challenge project that I did is a little bit of an exception because of how closely I was trying to match what you do in school. So, the idea of ultralearning, as I sort of defined in the book, is that it is a strategy for learning, it’s both self-directed and aggressive. So, self-directed is kind of in contrast to how we often typically think of what education, where you sign up for class, you sit in a class, the teacher tells you, “All right. You’re going to learn this, you’re going to do this homework,” and you just follow along the instructions. You often don’t have a lot of initiative or control over the process.
Whereas, self-directed learning is when you are kind of deciding, “Okay, I’d like to get good at this. What’s the right way to do it?” You design the project, you pick which materials you’re going to use, and you go through it, even if some of those materials are, let’s say, a class or held from someone else. And so, this is really putting the learner in the driver’s seat, which I think is very important because that often means you get what you want out of some education program rather than just what someone, at a college or someone I think in a classroom, decided that you should be learning.
Now, the second thing is the aggressiveness which I know I think that probably comes across when I’m talking about the MIT Challenge or other projects. But one of the recurring findings I found when I was taking the research that a lot of things that are somewhat more difficult at first are actually much more effective in terms of your ability to actually acquire skills and retain knowledge.
And so, a lot of students sort of unwittingly kind of adopt these studying tactics or learning methods that end up getting much worse results and that are not as efficient, require a lot more time. But if they did something that is a little bit more intense, they would get better results.
And so, ultralearning was sort of a combination of that, and I documented the book by finding these people who just had accomplished these really incredible self-education projects where they had learned really hard skills that are useful for their career and their life often in ways very different from how you would approach it in school.
So, why don’t we dig into one of those tales in terms of another transformation with regard to doing some ultralearning?
Yes. So, some of the examples in the book that I cover is Erick Barone who, he basically taught himself all the facets of video game design. That means doing the art, doing the music, doing the programming, doing the story-writing, everything, by himself over a period, this was a project he did for five years, and ended up writing a bestselling game which he ended up selling tens of millions of copies of.
We have people like Tristan de Montebello who is actually someone that I met before he did his ultralearning project, and he did want to get really good at public speaking. And over the course of seven months, he went from having about zero experience, just then having a handful of speeches in his entire life, to being a finalist for the world championship of public speaking through a process of doing lots and lots of speeches, but also getting feedback, videotaping his performance, seeking all sorts of unique ways to improve his skills.
And these are some dramatic examples, but a lot of the ways that I think this practice of ultralearning can impact your life are things that they may not be going to be bestselling novels, but they are things that really matter to the person who did them. So, people like Dinah Feisenfeld was another woman that I met in the process of doing this, who was a librarian. She was reaching near the end of her career, and she was facing the fact that the world doesn’t need as many librarians as they used to, and it’s a struggling field with budget cutbacks and stuff.
And so, she decided she was going to learn statistical programming and data visualization because she recognized that where her field was going was being able to deal with large volumes of information that were coming in about books and resources and these sorts of things. And so, taking on a self-education project, she was able to turn her career around so that instead of something becoming obsolete, she was becoming indispensable. So, I think these are just a few of the stories that I cover a lot more in the book of people who have accomplished interesting things.
Well, that librarian story really resonates with me, one, because I love libraries and, two, because, hey, that’s really a beautiful move from a career perspective in terms of, “All right. We’ll take a look around. What’s going on? What is really necessary? What skills are associated with that? And then, bam, I’m going after them.” So, that’s pretty inspiring in terms of what can be possible for all of us in terms of from zero to extraordinary in maybe a year or maybe less.
So, that’s awesome. Well, let’s dig into then a few of these key strategies. So, you had said one theme is that you do some approaches that are aggressive and that they’re more difficult at first, but more effective over the course of time. Are there any other kind of key distinctions you’d make between some of your learning strategies you advocate and typical school learning strategies?
Well, one of the main principles that I talk about in the book is the idea of directness and there’s actually a huge body of research extending back decades that basically shows that we’re very bad at what psychologists call transfer. Meaning, that if you teach someone something in a classroom, and then you try to test them in a way that is somewhat different from how they get it in the class, they often do abysmally on these tests even though you would expect the knowledge was transferred.
So, one example of that is in one study, economics majors did not do better on questions of economic reasoning than non-economics majors, which is something you would expect to have acquired after spending a number of years studying something intensively at universities. And there’s a whole constellation of findings that are all around this problem of transfer. And the problem, it seems to me, is that a lot of the ways that we think about education are quite indirect.
You go to a classroom, it’s removed from the real world, you learn some very abstract ideas, and then they say, “Okay, go off and apply it to the real world.” And what’s missing is that often people struggle to apply it to their real world. They struggle to apply these big abstract ideas, or these ideas that are quite removed from the context of their actual lives.
And so, ultralearning, in many of the cases that I looked at, was really tied to using the skill from a very early point. And by tying it to a very early point, you often avoid these problems where you spend a lot of time studying something that doesn’t turn out to be useful.
So, one of the examples of an ultralearner I talk about in the book is Benny Lewis who’s learned dozens of languages. And his approach for learning languages is to start having little conversations with a phrase book, or Google translate or something like that, from the very first day he starts learning it. And this is in contrast to how we often think about language learning where you get some big book and you work through a bunch of exercises, and maybe you spend months without having a real conversation with someone.
And so, by doing that, he is accelerating his process but he’s also making sure that when he does learn something, it’s going to be used immediately. And, obviously, the examples I already brought up about Eric Barone learning video game development often through working on his own video game, or Tristan de Montebello learning public speaking by doing these speeches, this is sort of in contrast to how we often think about the kind of sit and listen model of lectures and classes, which is so typical to our normal education process.
Yeah. Boy, this reminds me of when I first learned how to podcast. I hunkered down with Pat Flynn’s YouTube videos, which were amazing, and I was like, “All right. Tell me what I’m doing. All right, now, I’m going to do it.” It’s like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and it was pretty fun and rewarding because, to go from, “I have no idea what I’m doing,” to, “Okay, that’s what the guy said I was supposed to do,” to, “Oh, hey, I just did it. All right. What’s next? How do I get this RSS feed business going? All right. Let’s bring that out.” And so, it did really reinforce in such that it became second nature in a hurry.
Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s just one of the ideas but I think it’s a very important one because it’s one that’s often missed by people. If you think about learning in terms of going to a class or reading a book and doing a test, not to say that those things aren’t valuable or they’re not useful tools to get you to your destination. But if that your dominant paradigm is, “Well, I want to learn something, I’d rather sit in this classroom and do it this way,” you will often have these issues potentially, at least, of transfer where you want to have a real skill but you’re not actually able to perform it the way that you’d like.
Okay. Well, so that’s heady principle. Lay another one on us. I’d say I think you got nine principles and I thought I want to hit them all. But I’d love to get those that are the most transformational with regard to, “Okay, this only takes a smidge of time, but, wow, the results are delicious.”
Right. So, another one, and this is another one that’s, I think, not widely appreciated but is super powerful. It’s what is known as retrieval. And so, there is a really interesting study done by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt where they took students and divided them up into different groups. And one of the groups they got to do what they called repeated reviews. That means that you have a text or you have some material that you’re studying, and you just read it over and over again. And this is very similar to how a lot of students study, they take their notes and just read them over and over again as they’re preparing for a test.
And the other group of students, they got them to do what they called free recall, which means you read the text and then you shut it, and you don’t read it again, and you just try to spend time trying to remember everything that was in the text. And what was interesting about this study is they asked the students right after they had done this, “How well do you think you learned the material?” And what was interesting is that people who did repeated review said, “I got this,” that they rated their own sort of self-assessment of how well they learned the material the highest. Whereas the people who did free recall were like, “Oh, wow, I don’t have this,” and they rated their own performance rather poorly.
Now, the interesting twist of this study is that when you go on to test the actual students, it is the people who did free recall that performed much better than the people who did repeated review. So, this is an example of one of these findings that we already talked about of directness, this idea of learning directly before, but retrieval is another example of this idea of aggressive learning and ultralearning where it’s not so much about putting in 80 hours a week, but rather, “What are you actually doing with that time?”
And, in this case, if you spend your time doing repeated review, which is an easier more comfortable activity, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a reason why students like to do it is because just flipping over your notes feels pretty good. It doesn’t feel too bad. Whereas doing free recall, which is often uncomfortable, which you often recognize, “Oh, wow, I don’t actually know this really well,” and you have a little bit of fear about this test coming up. That is not always the most pleasant feeling but yet it is much more effective.
And so, this is just another example of where if you want to remember something or if you want to actually have knowledge at your disposal for a test or for real life, that if you practice retrieving it, you will remember it much better than if you just review it over and over again.
Some people toss it and leave it but you pull up quick to retrieve it, is what I’m summarizing. See, I’m retrieving it right now, Scott, and connecting to rap music from my youth. Well, that’s intriguing. So, then to do the free retrieval or what do you call it?
Method of retrieval, you just sort of, I guess, you can do either just sort of speaking it or writing it and sort of saying, “Okay, what did you just pick up there?”
Right. So, there’s lots of different ways that retrieval can happen. So, free recall is the one that’s done at this particular study, and it’s a useful one because you don’t need anything. You just shut the book and you just try to remember it from the top of your head. You can write it down on a piece of paper, you can say it loud, you can even just do it in your head if you really wanted to.
Other forms of doing this kind of approach is one of them is doing practice testing which means if you do practice questions, so if you’re doing a physics exam and you do practice questions, that’s another form of retrieval because you don’t have the answer with you. And that is an example where you have to bring up the knowledge from your head.
Other examples, there’s a common type known as cued recall. So, cued recall is where you give someone a hint or you give someone kind of a small question in order to trigger the knowledge. This is very common in forms of flashcards. So, you have questions with answers on the back. And this is, again, a good way to recall information the long term because you have to practice remembering it.
I think the real lesson of retrieval is to not think of, “Well, I’ve learned something. Now it’s in my head and, therefore, it’s just going to be accessible to me whenever I want it.” But rather to think of retrieving knowledge of actually bringing it up in the right situation is often the very essence of learning, is to not just have the knowledge in your head somewhere but to be able to access it when you need it is what’s very important. And that’s what you’re practicing when you do retrieval. Whereas when you just do review, it’s sort of that kind of an analogical level where you can imagine your brain just sort of saying, “Oh, this is on the paper. I don’t need to remember that because it’s just there when I’m looking at it.
And I think this is also interesting because one of the reasons students get deceived into thinking this kind of reviewing your notes over and over again works really well is because it gets easier and easier the more you do it. And so, our brain substitutes the feeling of, “This is getting easier,” with, “I’m going to remember this in the future. And those aren’t necessarily the same thing. As anyone can remember being at a party, and someone says their name, and then two seconds later you don’t remember it. It’s for the same reason that you say to yourself, “Well, Mark, that’s a normal name,” and then you forget about it, right? So, there can be the same sort of effect where ease is substituted for how well you’ll actually remember something later.
Well, so I’m intrigued. So, I’m imagining these scenarios and these principles playing out. I can see how it readily applies to learning a language or a subject matter like physics. I guess I’m wondering about maybe communication skills with regard to you said you had an ultralearner who became a finalist in the global champions of public speaking. So, how does that sort of change things a bit in terms of, “I want to have a skill that I am using. Like, I can put up some drywall, or I can play a guitar, or I can give a good speech, or I can listen better”? Are there other principles that play into those more? Or how do we think about practicing in these dimensions?
So, as we mentioned before, there’s nine principles in the book, and some subjects, some particular skills are going to be like one of the principles are going to be particularly relevant for the fact that most people misapply it, and then for others it might not be super relevant. So, retrieval is one that tends to have to do with when you have to remember things.
So, interestingly enough, retrieval is actually super important for public speaking because you want to be able to remember your speech. And how do a lot of people memorize their speech? They write it on cue cards and they read it over and over again when they are reading it out and practicing in front of their coworkers or spouse or someone. Whereas, what you should be doing is putting the cards away and trying to recall it from memory because that’s how you’ll be able to actually repeat it without putting it on the cards.
But, really, being able to memorize a speech is just a really small part of what makes a good public speaker. And, similarly, if you’re playing a guitar, or you’re doing other things, there is going to be some retrieval. You need to actually memorize those patterns in a song or you need to be able to remember things. There’s a lot of other things that go into it as well.
So, another chapter, we discuss the idea of drill. And so, drills are something that have gotten a bit of a bad rap. We all remember drills that we were forced through in our elementary school where we were kind of punished and had to do the same drill over and over and over again until we mastered something.
And the problem is often just that when you are in a formal education environment, someone gives you a drill and you just have to do it a bunch, but you don’t really know why you’re doing it. Whereas, when you are doing a self-directed learning project, drills can actually be quite useful. And the idea behind a drill is that when we are practicing a complicated skill, like listening or putting on drywall as you mentioned, if you’re doing some skill like that, there’s often a lot going on. Particularly, the more complicated a skill is, if you’re playing chess, if you’re painting a picture, if you are juggling on a unicycle, there’s a lot of little components that all have to go into performing the skill well.
And so, ultralearners are people who are really good at this process of self-directed learning sort of instinctively know to break apart components of the skills which they can kind of practice in some sort of isolation and then weave back together with the sort of more complicated skill that they’re actually trying to perform.
So, Tristan de Montebello, who did the public speaking project, he was actually quite interesting in how innovative he was with doing some of these drills. So, on one of his goals, he wanted to work on his humor and some of his jokes, and so he decided to actually perform at middle schools because when he was performing in Toastmasters Clubs, people were very polite, they would certainly applaud and laugh along to what he was saying. But what if he wanted to know what people really thought, he would go to these grade schoolers who would not pull any punches if they thought his speech sucked.
And so, similarly, you can do the same thing when you are working on your own skills. Break it apart and work on components. So, if you’re a writer, you could sort of, let’s say, work on little mini efforts to get better at storytelling, or research, or grammar, or vocabulary, like that.
Intriguing. So, you’re breaking that into components and then drilling one of them repeatedly.
Well, the idea here is, well, repeated drilling can be one way of improving it, but the right way to think about it just that any skill you want to learn, and particularly the ones that we’re talking about that are not the kind that are usually taught in school, like listening, for instance, the right way to think about it is not, “Well, how the heck do you get better at listening?” It’s to think of listening of actually being many, many different skills that all kind of come together in one activity.
So, being able to listen is not only being able to hear but be able to pay attention. It’s about having some knowledge of what the speaker is talking about. It’s about being able to respond in such a way with your body language and your words so that they can tell you’re listening, have constructive comments, do not react emotionally. There’s tons and tons of little things there.
So, if you wanted to get better at listening, a good starting point would be to look at your skill right now, try to see kind of how it breaks down, practice doing some listening with your spouse and sort of see where you’re making mistakes. And then, what I advocate in the book is that you either focus on the thing that your weakest on, so you focus on your weakest point rather than just some random point to improve.
So, if you’re really bad at listening because you get distracted really easily, that could be something to focus on. And, similarly, if there is too many components, so you’re trying to do many things at once, so, again, like you’re juggling with the unicycle, that might be too hard when you start. So, you start by just juggling one bowling pin, and then you add two, and then you add three, and then you add the unicycling like that.
So, there’s lots of different ways you can think of skills, and I outline some of these specific tactics in the book. But this is the right way to think about these sorts of nebulous skills and things we want to be good at in life that really are quite complicated.
Well, so these are a lot of good little tidbits. I’d love to get your take on is there a particular sort of small adjustment that makes a huge difference? Would you put the retrieval toward the top of your list? Or is there another thing that you’re thinking, “Wow, this makes a world of difference for leverage”?
Oh, there’s tons, yeah. Well, the retrieval is an obvious one. So, if you’re doing anything that you have to pass a test for, you should be practicing retrieval and not doing repeated review. And, again, the fact that most students don’t do this is a real tragedy because they waste a lot of time and they really convince themselves they’ve learned something that they haven’t.
I also talked about directness which is another one. One of the questions that I encourage anyone who reads the book, anyone who’s listening right now, to ask themselves before they try to learn anything, to ask themselves, “Where am I going to use this?” And this doesn’t mean that where you’re going to use it has to be super narrow, and that like, “Well, I’m only learning Spanish so that I can go to a restaurant in Mexico and order fajitas.” Like, it doesn’t have to be that narrow for your end goal. But if you can focus on that little concrete starting point, you’re much less likely to get adrift with these transfer issues.
One of the principles that I open the book with is what I call meta learning, so this is the idea of learning how to learn something, and that’s something that is important for all learners, but particularly important if you’re going to take on your own project and try to design it. And this step is just simply before you start learning anything, just Google, “What are the best resources for learning X?” or, “What are the best methods for learning X?”
And if you spend an hour or two on Google just reading some articles, you will quickly find tons of books, tutorials, videos, textbooks, tons and tons of resources that you can choose from. And so, the actual, the literature on adult learning or self-directed learning projects shows that most people, when they are learning something, they just go with whatever is first available. So, they just, “Oh, one of my friends, he knows this, so I’m just going to ask him,” or, “This is the first book I found at the bookstore, so I’m going to read that.”
And I find that spending a little bit more time to do research avoids a lot of pitfalls because you actually know, “Oh, actually, a lot of people don’t recommend this for learning a language, for instance, because they didn’t find that it works.” And you can save yourself six months of playing around with it. And so, that’s, again, another little tip that I suggest for people to undertake.
Yeah, I really like that in terms of being conscientious and mindful of what are the tools and resources you’re looking to for your learning because it’s really true, there could be—I’m thinking about some of my favorite classes. Like, there’s some textbooks that I just thought were excellent and I still with me today because I thought I enjoyed reading this and learning this.
And like one topic was social psychology. I mean, I’m sure there are lamer social psychology textbooks than the one I had. And if I had them, I probably would have less knowledge as a result of being saddled with it. And I also think about that with regard to sort of Amazon reviews or if you take a gander at a book, you can look inside, you can check out the table of contents, you can read a couple of pages. And it’s wild how two books on the same topic will be substantially different in their resonance with me as I get into them a bit, like, “Wow, this is really kind of lame and boring and no fun,” as opposed to, “Whoa, this is a page-turner and it’s still non-fiction content that is skill developing.”
Well, the sort of analogy that I like to use is that when you are preparing for learning projects, it’s a little bit like packing a suitcase. You don’t want to pack your entire house and bring 15 bags for a weekend vacation. But, at the same time, you don’t want to show up somewhere with nothing, and you have to buy everything on the road because that’s no fun.
So, the right way to think about it is you do a little bit of researching ahead of time. And the amount of research you do, I think, scales with your project. I was mentioning, when I was doing this MIT Challenge project, I spent a few months just sort of researching on and off in my spare time because I knew it would be a pretty serious undertaking. Whereas, if you’re planning on doing something, which is, you know, it’s going to take you maybe a couple of weeks to learn, then maybe just spending an hour or so on Google is probably sufficient.
And so, the right way to think about it is just that there are lots and lots and lots of different ways to learn everything. And so, a lot of people get stuck in whatever was first recommended to them because that’s just what they go with. And if that isn’t working for you, if that book isn’t working for you, the course, what have you, using a different tool, or at least being aware that different tools and methods exist is very important. I think that’s particularly true of practical skills like, let’s say, languages, or programming, or using Excel, or drywall repair, as we were talking about earlier.
Now, you mentioned the Feynman Technique a couple times, so I just can’t resist. Let’s close the loop here. What is that and how is it helpful?
Yeah, so the Feynman Technique was a sort of idea that I kind of pieced together from reading smatterings of Richard Feynman’s autobiography where he talks about some of his processes that he used to learn things. Now, it’s probably not the case that he used exactly this method, but he did seem to use similar cognitive processes in the work he was doing so I called it the Feynman Technique sort of after my inspiration from him.
And the basic idea is that if there’s some idea that you don’t understand, it’s particularly useful with difficult conceptual kinds of classes, if you’re learning physics or math or biology, or you have to study for a tough accounting exam, or there’s some concept in your work that you don’t understand, you start with a piece of paper and you write at the top, “Understanding X,” so whatever you’re trying to learn. So, it could be understanding torque, or understanding macros, or whatever you don’t understand.
And then you try to explain it to yourself as if you were teaching it to someone else. And this does a couple of things. The first thing that it does is just by writing, you are taking advantage of the fact that by writing things down you can get things out of your head so it’s easier to deal with the more complicated topics. So, a lot of ideas in our head are sort of hard to think about all at once especially if they’re confusing. But if you write them down, they start to make more sense. So, very often you can start and you just write from start to finish, and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know what I thought was so confusing about it. It actually makes sense now.”
On the other hand, if you are genuinely confused, and there is genuinely a sort of puzzle piece missing to assemble the whole picture, then doing this process will help you narrow in on where that piece is missing. So, as you write through this, you say, “Oh, I don’t understand steps four to five in this procedure I’m supposed to follow. Why am I supposed to do it this way?” And then, with that knowledge, you can go back to your book, you can go to an online video, you can ask a colleague, a boss, someone who knows something, you can ask them, “Hey, why is it like this right here?” And then the advantage is that instead of asking a super nebulous question, like, “Oh, I have no idea what this thing is about it all,” you can just ask them a very specific question where you’re more likely to get a useful answer.
And so, I sort of first wrote about this idea about eight years ago, and it’s since been really popular. A lot of people have put their own videos and tutorials online demonstrating the Feynman Techniques, so it’s really been something that’s helped a lot of students, and even a lot of professionals, deal with confusing problems and ideas in their life.
All right. So, at the top of the page you’re writing, “Understanding the topic,” and then you’re writing down, you say as though you’re explaining it to someone else. And so, I guess I’m imagining maybe it doesn’t matter if you’re writing down sort of extemporaneous bullet points versus full texts, prose.
I tend to do full text prose. It depends a little bit on your style. Like, obviously, this makes it more time-consuming, but I think that’s one of the benefits is that if I were to explain some idea, I would sort of say, “Okay, so the first thing we have to understand about this idea…” Like, pretend you’re giving a lecture, and you don’t have to write it on the page. One advantage you can do is just say it loud. And the main advantage of doing this is that it helps you organize your own thinking so you can identify some of these gaps in your knowledge.
Another advantage is that one of the main limitations we have is we have limited working memory. So, working memory is kind of the workbench of the mind, so to speak, where you take all the little memories and sensory inputs, and you sort of assemble them together to new thoughts and solutions. So one of the challenges is that this workbench is kind of famously small that when researchers measure it, we find that we can only actually have a few ideas in mind simultaneously without having one of them be forgotten.
And so, because of this, if you have a device where you can write it on a piece of paper, or you can even like write it out on a board, or do something like this, you can offload some of those ideas so you can focus on the parts that matter. Whereas, if it’s in your head, you can often feel like a jumble where everything is bouncing around.
Yeah. And I love what you had to say with regard to when you zero in on that, it’s great for you because you’re focused, and it’s great for your teacher or your resource because it just brings me back to memories of school in which there’d be a student who would just say, “I don’t get it.” And you can tell the teacher was so frustrated with him, and it’s like, “Could you be more specific?” Because there may be a dozen points of entry that they’ve got to now got to navigate and select one as opposed to going right for the jugular that’s going to make the impact.
So, good stuff there. Now, I want to get your take, so the aggressive part and learning in general can be awkward, frustrating, unfun when you feel like you’re flailing and stupid and on the early stages of learning stuff. How do you think about discipline or mindset so that you can stick with it?
So, one of the things that I like to think about a lot is, “How do you structure your environment? How do you structure your goals and plans so that you don’t have to just have this constant feeling of willpower?” So, one of the mistakes I think a lot of people make is kind of, ironically, they actually are a little bit too easy. What they do is they’ll say, “Oh, you know, I’ll just work on this whenever I have time.”
Well, the problem is whenever you have time is always going to be more fun in the moment to pull out your smartphone and play on some game, or go on Twitter, or watch Netflix, than it will be to do some learning activity, especially in the beginning stages where you maybe haven’t yet entered that zone of positive feedback where you’re feeling constantly reaffirmed that you made the right choice to learn this thing.
And so, what I often find is, “How can you structure your environment and your time to just make sure that, ‘Okay, well, when I’m doing this, this is the only thing around me. I’m not distracted. I can focus. I can actually apply my time’?” And then often there’s little other subtle things that you can do to avoid kind of your little dips or your weak points when you’re doing things.
So, one of the big things you can do is get setup. So, for learning a lot of skills and tasks, the major obstacle is just getting setup. Like, if you’re going to paint a painting, you need to buy paints and an easel and brushes and make sure you have all the materials, and get the newspaper laid down, and all that kind of thing.
If you’re learning a programming language, very often the most frustrating part of learning to program is just getting your computer setup so that you can program. Or, for learning a language, for instance, very often one of the major difficulties is that because everyone around you speaks to you in English all the time, it’s always a little bit of friction, always a little bit of difficulty to push outside of that and start speaking a language you want to learn.
So, in the book, I often talk about ways that you can use little tricks to kind of get yourself to move forward. So, a really minor one, but one that made a big difference for me, as I was learning a new language, in this case it was Chinese, and I had to do a lot of flashcards. I was doing a lot of flashcards as part of the process of acquiring Chinese vocabulary. And one thing I noticed with myself is whenever I would mess up a flashcard, meaning that I got the wrong answer, there was this immediate pang of, “Ugh, I hate this,” or frustration. And that frustration immediately led to the urge of, “Let’s put this away. This is enough studying for now. Let’s go do something else.”
And what I found is that that little pang of frustration was actually really short-lived. So, what I could do was is if I just made a rule to myself that I was only allowed to quit when I’ve gotten one right, or the most recent one right. What that meant was that, yeah, sometimes I would get frustrated, but very often I would persist for much, much longer because as soon as you got one right, then you’re going to get a bit of positive feedback and you want to keep going.
And so, I think by thinking about your own behavior and your own habits and your own projects in this kind of systems level view, rather than just, “Hmm, I’m just going to put in lots of willpower,” I think you’ll get better results because very often it’s these very subtle things that if you can adjust, you can go much further.
Yeah, that’s a great rule there, “I’ll only quit, right after I get one right,” because once you get one right, you’ll feel good and you want to keep going. And, two, you’ll end on it on a high note as opposed to remembering, you know, primacy and recent effects. Like, instead of remembering that session as a huge drag that you painted, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I got it. Cool.” And so, you’ve got that memory with you to reinforce you starting up the next time.
Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
Well, I would say that my main focus with this book and the reason that I sort of obsess myself with learning over the last decade is that I think for a lot of people, learning is something practical, it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got to get from point A to point B.” But I found, from doing these projects, and I found in my own experience mirrored in other people that I met that, really, it’s much more than that. That often what our greatest moments in life, the most we fear, the most happy, fulfilled are when we expand our own sense of what we’re capable of and what our possibilities are.
And so, I remember talking with Tristan de Montebello, he was the guy with the public speaking project, and I remember him telling me, he’s like, “You know what, Scott, it’s not that I just got good at public speaking, that that was I was excited about, but that this totally changed how I will approach any project in my life in the future,” that just all these skills and things that he would like to learn just seem to open up in front of him, that he kind of considered before.
And so, my main motivation for writing this book was not just to give people some practical tips, although we’ve talked about lots of them, but so that they may have that own experience in their life where something that they thought, “You know what, well, there’s no way I can learn this because I’d have to go back to school, and it would be tons of agony for years, and it’ll be painful. I won’t be able to do it.” That they could open themselves up whether that’s to learn something, a new hobby, a new language, a new instrument, a new skill, or maybe even transition to a new career, or really upgrade their skills in their career so that they can do a job that seems kind of terrifying for them right now.
Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
So, one of the quotes, and I’m going to modify it a little bit because I really like it, but this is a quote from the motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, and he says, “Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is victory.” And the thing that I’d like to modify it to is kind of really into what I was saying that I think that “Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is the expansion of possibilities.” So, I do think that it is when we achieve things, it is when we expand, when we feel like we’re capable of that, we have our happy moments, not just when we get a reward or something nice happens.
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
Well, I can tell you right now one of my favorite ones is the one that I talked about in this book which is this one by Karpicke and Blunt about the retrieval versus repeated review. And it was so brilliant just because it just fit entirely with the idea of how students think about learning and what actually works.
And how about a favorite book?
So, a book I would recommend, which has been my favorite book for last year, is called The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, and this book is basically challenging the idea of what we think we are doing when we are thinking and reasoning about things. And I found it to be a very interesting book because it explains so much of why we argue about things, and also how we can think smarter in our lives.
And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?
Right. So, I’m going to go really basic but I really like reminders, just to-do lists. And I know that sounds a little like a little bit too basic, everyone wants to use advanced tools, but I find making lists very helpful. So, I have a list for my to-do items, but I also have a list of ideas, and books I should read, and restaurants I should go to, and projects I’d like to work on, and things that someone said, and quotes, and I probably got a dozen more lists on my computer.
And how about a favorite habit?
So, related to that, I think one of the best habits you can do is, before you go to bed, plan your day in the morning. So, plan what you’re going to do in the next day. So, that could be just as simple as writing it out on a to-do list, “I’m going to do these eight things tomorrow,” or it could be as specific as figuring out what you’re going to do with each chunk of time. But I think the more you plan things ahead of time, the more you figure out how you’re actually going to use them, you’re less likely to succumb to doing the easiest thing in the moment.
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
So, if you want to reach out to me, you can go to my website at ScottHYoung.com, and you can find my contact form there. You can also reach me by writing to email@example.com. You can send me an email. I would definitely love to hear if anyone has applied some of these methods or if they go out and get the book, and decide to do their own ultralearning project, what they’ve decided to use it for.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
So, the point I’d like to leave with this is one that we did mention before, but is something that I think is so important that I’d like to end it again considering we’re talking about the recency effects, is the idea that whenever you want to learn something, you should always start by asking yourself, “What is one concrete situation that I can use this in? And how can I do a little bit of my time practicing or applying it in that situation?” You’ll go a lot further if you can think of your learning in terms of, “How do I do things?” rather than just putting abstract knowledge in your head.
All right. Scott, this has been a lot of fun. Enjoy your learning.
Oh, thank you so much.