In this episode, we discuss how our traditional education system has given us the wrong perspectives on how learning actually works. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of looking for and waiting for the perfect step by step formula, but it’s actually the ability to flexibly experiment that empowers you to be successful in learning, and really anything. We share exactly how you can apply these lessons and much more with our guest Scott Young.
Scott Young is a writer and programmer who has undertaken many incredibly challenging self-education projects in his career. These challenges include feats such as attempting to learn MIT's four-year computer science curriculum in twelve months as well as learning four languages in one year. He is the author of the best-selling book Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition and Accelerate Your Career and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Business Insider, TEDx, and more!
Attempting to learn MIT's four-year computer science curriculum in twelve months
Our expectations around learning are often wrong - and we frequently go about learning the wrong way
How you can learn any language in less than 3 months
How you can harness the power of immersive practice to rapidly accelerate your learning
Our traditional education system has given us the wrong perspectives on how learning actually works
Practice directly, get feedback, get your hands dirty
Self-directed learning is super important - what you want to learn, how you want to learn, and what resources you want to use. It needs to be self-directed.
Ultralearning also needs to be focused around efficiency - collecting and learning information as quickly as possible.
Often, learning techniques that are the most effective are the most difficult and frustrating and lend themselves to the least sense of accomplishment
The powerful concept of “meta-learning” - learning about learning. Before you start ANY learning activity, you want to do some research on what the BEST way to learn is
Meta-learning doesn’t mean you don’t have to do the work. But it is a great tool, to begin with to figure out
Ultra learning is not a short cut to find a way so you don’t have to do the work but rather prevents you from going down dead ends.
There is no such thing as a get smart quick scheme.
If you want to get good at something, you need to do the thing you want to get good at.
If you want to know something, ask yourself WHERE and HOW will I use this knowledge?
Human beings are really bad at “transfer” - transferring knowledge to new and different contexts
The important difference between “free recall” and “repeated review” when studying information
Desirable difficulty in learning. Often the more difficult it is to learn, retrieve or remember something
The importance of experimentation.
You often want a step by step formula, but those often do not exist. As soon as the formula becomes popular it gets copied to death. The ability to flexibly experiment is a huge skillset towards being successful in learning, and really anything.
Start building a toolkit of software tools and mental models to improve your learning and thinking
You want to be a Swiss army knife, not a hammer when you’re solving your problems (in learning, and elsewhere)
Cultivate a lifelong philosophy of learning new things and adding new thinking tools
The greatest moments in your life aren’t because you get a reward, they’re because you experience something that expands your sense of what’s possible
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of looking for and waiting for the perfect step by step formula, but it’s really the ability to flexibly experiment that empowers you to be successful in learning, and really anything.
How you can use the Feynman Technique to improve your ability to think better and understand complex or confusing topics.
How you can debug your own understanding and solve any problem using this powerful technique from a legendary scientist
Homework: Think about something you’re learning right now (or trying to learn) think very clearly about the situations where you would use that knowledge or apply that skill. Ask, what kind of situations would this knowledge come up and be relevant?
If you read a book, you have to actually IMPLEMENT the IDEAS that you learn from it.
Thank you so much for listening!
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This week's episode of The Science of Success is presented by Dr. Aziz Gazipura's Confidence University!
You can learn to confidently connect with others, be bold, feel proud of who you are, and create the life you truly deserve!
Don't Wait and Wonder! Find Out Today!
Want To Dig In More?! - Here’s The Show Notes, Links, & Research
Scott’s Top 5 Article picks on his site
Scott’s Courses and Books
ResearchGate - Scott H. Young Research Profile
Author Directory on LifeHack
Fluent in 3 Months - “How to Learn Something New: An In-Depth Review of “Ultralearning” by Scott H. Young” by David Masters
The Mezzofanti Guild - “Interview: Scott H. Young’s Year Without English Project” by Donovan Nagel
Cal Newport - On the Art of Learning Things (Ultra) Quickly
Fast Company - How to learn new skills more quickly and effectively by Stephanie Vozza
Road to Limitless - “Ultralearning – Interview with Scott H. Young” by Marco Tiro
Lefkoe Institute - “Scott H Young on Self-Learning and Habit Creation” Written by: Morty Lefkoe
The New York Times -” The Structures of Growth” by David Brooks
[Podcast] Leading Learning - Leading Ultralearning with Scott H. Young
[Podcast] How to Be Awesome at Your Job - 471: How to Acquire New Skills Faster with Scott H. Young
[Podcast] Modern Wisdom - #092 - Scott H Young - Ultralearning
[Podcast] The Jordan Harbinger Show - 241: Scott Young | Ultralearning Your Way to Skill Mastery
[Podcast] Productivityist - Episode 256: Understanding Ultralearning with Scott H. Young
[Podcast] The Action Catalyst - Ultralearning with Scott H. Young—Episode 295
Scott’s YouTube Channel
Scott’s 2nd YouTube Channel
Better Explained - Book Discussion: Ultralearning with Scott Young
I Will Teach You To Be Rich - How to learn anything, with Scott Young | Ramit's Brain Trust
[00:00:04.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:11] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 4 million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we discuss how our traditional education system has given us the wrong perspective on how learning actually works. It's so easy to fall into the trap of looking for and waiting for the perfect step-by-step formula to achieve your goals, but it's actually the ability to flexibly adapt an experiment that empowers you to be successful in learning and really, everything in life. We share exactly how you can apply these lessons and much more with our guest, Scott Young.
Are you a fan of the show and have you been enjoying the content that we put together for you? If you have, I would love it if you signed up for our email list. We have some amazing content on their along with the really great free course that we put a ton of time into called How to Create Time for What Matters Most in Your Life. If that sounds exciting and interesting and you want a bunch of other free goodies and giveaways along with that, just go to successpodcast.com. You can sign up right on the homepage. That’s successpodcast.com. Or if you're on your phone right now, all you have to do is text the word “smarter". That's S-M-A-R-T-E-R to the number 44222.
In our previous episode, we discussed powerful thinking tools and strategies you can use to break through tough problems and give yourself confidence and clarity when you're dealing with uncertain situations. We shared the breakthrough strategy that was used to invent astrophysics. Explored how you can make tough life and career choices and showed you how you can use quick experiments to test, learn and get results rapidly. We discussed all that and much more with our previous guest, David Epstein.
if you want to master one of the most valuable skillsets in today's world, listen to our previous episode.
Now, for interview with Scott.
[00:02:18] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Scott Young. Scott is a writer and programmer who has undertaken many incredibly challenging self-education projects in his career. These challenges include feats such as an attempt to learn MIT's four-year computer science curriculum in 12 months, as well as learning four languages in a year. He’s the author of the bestselling book, Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career, and his work has been featured in the New York Times, Business Insider, The TEDx Stage and much more.
Scott, welcome to The Science of Success.
[00:02:53] SY: Thanks for having me.
[00:02:54] MB: We’re really excited to have you on the show today and dig into some of the different topics that you talk about. It’s such a great topic in general, and I'm obviously obsessed with learning, which is part of the reason that I do this show. But I wanted to start out and begin the conversation with this challenge or this incredible feat of attempting to learn MIT's computer science curriculum in such a compressed timeframe. Tell me a little bit about that. What inspired it and what tactics or strategies did you implement?
[00:03:23] SY: Right. So that was a project I called the MIT Challenge, which I started in October of 2011, and I ended in September of 2012. And the idea of the project was that MIT puts a lot of their classes, meaning, recordings of the actual lectures, assignments, the final exams with the solution keys. They put those materials for many, many of their classes online for free. So you can, right now, listening to this, go and take an MIT class like an MIT student.
So I had graduated from school, and I had studied business, and I originally had kind of gone on with this notion that studying business would be really good if I want to be an entrepreneur. And then I took a couple years and realized that it's mostly about how you can be a middle manager in a large company. So it was a little bit kind of disappointing and I was thinking about going back to school. But I didn't really feel like I wanted to put in another four years. So I stumbled across these classes.
And as I was kind of taking, I think I remember taking one of the classes and being pretty impressed by it and thinking has anyone ever tried to do something like a degree before, like piece together what an MIT student would do in a computer science or some other major degree and try to go through it?
And so as I was sort of thinking about this, I also started thinking, “Well, what if you simplified it?” So instead of trying to meet every single little criterion, check every single little box an MIT student would. What if you just simplified it to – What if you could try to pass the final exams for the classes and do the programming projects?
So this sort of spun off into this project that I wanted to do that I did over this year-long period of time I called the MIT Challenge. So with this sort of reduced criteria in mind, the goal was to do – I think I did one class before the year-long period. So it was actually 32 classes in that one year-long period of time. So it’s a pretty intense project. Some of the stuff that I learned from doing this is that many of our expectations that we have about how you can learn things and what the most efficient way to learn things, or even just the way that people teach you things in school is necessarily the best and most effective way to learn it had sort of had an opportunity to start getting flipped upside down.
So even just little things like if you're watching lectures in a classroom, you have to just sit through the whole class. You have to show up when the class starts. You have to leave when it ends. You have to walk between different lecture halls. If it's a video and you have all of them recorded, you can just watch them at 1-1/2 times the speed. And if you don't understand something, you just pause and rewind. So little things like this start to add up and then you can approach learning in this new way.
So this idea of ultralearning, which I wrote about in this book, was to not just take my stories, but people who have also done really incredible things. People like Benny Lewis, who speaks 10+ languages, or Eric Barone, who started a million-dollar game business, or Tristan de Montebello who became a world finalist in public speaking after just seven months of intensive training. So looking at some of these extreme examples and see if there aren't any principles for learning that can apply to the kind of ordinary things of learning or self-improvement that you’d like to do.
[00:06:31] MB: There so many different ways I’d love to explore that. Let’s start out with this notion that you touched on a second ago about how our expectations around learning can often be wrong.
[00:06:43] SY: Yeah. So I think the best example of this is language learning. So we all have the experience or taking high school Spanish classes or that one French class we took, and we don’t remember anything from that, or we can't speak the language. Maybe we know how to say ola or dónde está el baño, but we don't really know that much to be able to actually have conversations with people.
So really the starting point for me of this, so even before I did this MIT challenge project that I decide. The first real exposure that I had that thinking outside of the normal box that we put all of our learning in, which is school and taking classes and getting grades, that there was people out there who are doing really incredible things with learning was – Actually, when I was still doing my undergrad in university, I had the opportunity go on exchange. I went and lived in France for a year and I thought, “I really wanted to learn French. I wanted to be able to have this sort of take away from this experience of being able to speak another language.” and I was struggling at the time.
Like a lot of people, I think, who even if you do get a chance to live in another place, it doesn't come automatically often. You struggle with speaking the language. In my case, I was surrounded by people who spoke to me in English all the time. My classes were in English. All my friends spoke to me in English, and I felt like it was very difficult to make progress in French.
So my first sort of real introduction to this world of ultra-learning was this guy, Benny Lewis, that I met. And Benny Lewis had very modestly titled website called Fluent in Three Months, and it was about his challenge to try to learn a language to conversational fluency or beyond in a three-month timeframe. And obviously if you're struggling at something, and I mean how many of us has spent been years learning a language in school and are not anywhere close to fluent. I think something like that is pretty ambitious.
But what I got to see from meeting him is how he broke a lot of the conventions that we have about how people often learn these things. So instead of spending months studying vocabulary, memorizing beings, trying to practice grammar and drills before having your first conversation, he was jumping into speaking with people from merely the first day, and he was practicing in this sort of immersive way where he’s racking up huge amounts of practice in a short period of and then, thus, becoming a lot better at the language.
So this was actually after I did this MIT challenge project, I did a project that was kind of similar to that, where I went with a friend and we did similar kind of thing where we went to four different countries over a year to spend three months in each country trying to learn those languages. So those were Spain, to learn Spanish; Brazil, to learn Portuguese; China, to the learn Mandarin; and South Korea, to learn Korean. And the kind of method or sort of technique that we were using for that approach was to not speak English. So when we would land in the country, we wouldn’t speak in English to each other or anyone we’d meet. We would just try to use the language we were learning, and it worked really, really well. We were not only able to successfully learn the languages, but we were able to make friends and socialize and really just to live in that country and have that experience in a way that I think I never – I was just kind of scraping the surface of when I was in France. And a lot of people are when they try to learn a language.
[00:09:50] MB: I love the example of really immersing yourself and that immersive practice, and it totally makes sense from the perspective of language learning. How do we start to broaden that lesson or apply some of those principles to learning in different contexts as well?
[00:10:05] SY: So thinking about immersion for languages, like language is the classic example of immersion, where we think, “Oh, obviously, you learn through immersion. It works really well.” But there's lots of other areas where that style of learning does work well, and it's not that kind. It's typically taught.
So, again, going back to even if you're talking about computer programming or learning some sort of professional skill, being in an environment where everyone around you is practicing a skill, you are using it all the time, you're getting feedback on it, you're working on real projects that are the actual kinds of things that matter. This is how you get better at things in real life.
So there's, in a real way, you could talk about being immersed in entrepreneurship, or immersed in painting, or immersed in architecture, immersed in programming, or all sorts of fields by doing it that way. And yet, how do we teach things in the classroom? You sit behind a desk. Someone just talks to you and you're mostly just taking notes. Maybe sometimes you'll do a little assignment or a project, but it's always kind of a toy project that has nothing to do with the real world, and you do this for years before you actually get to meaningfully participate in things.
So I think there's a lot of ways that are traditional education system has given us kind of the wrong lessons about how learning ought to work. And as a result, when we go to learn new skills, it's amazing to me how many people will say, “Oh, well. Maybe I could take a class, or maybe there's a book for that.” Instead of thinking about how do I create the kind of opportunity for myself to actually practice it directly, get feedback and use things like books and classrooms to support that rather than to use the classrooms and books as like an excuse for not actually doing the thing you want to get good at.
[00:11:42] MB: Such a great example, this whole idea of getting more hands-on, of getting more practical experience. I love the phrase that you used toy projects. Instead of spending time on these toy projects, we should be spending our time getting our hands dirty and just trying out things. Get experimenting. Getting in the flow and seeing what it's really like.
[00:12:03] SY: Absolutely.
[00:12:04] MB: So I want to come back to this notion that you talked about a second ago. This idea of ultralearning. Tell me more about what is that and how do we start to – You’ve given us one example already, but how do we more broadly start to approach learning in a new way?
[00:12:23] SY: So ultralearning, again, it's a word that I kind have coined a little bit to fit a situation. Like a lot of words, you see something in the world and there isn't really a good term to describe that right now. So the thing was looking at people like Benny Lewis or other people that I've mentioned before, Tristan Montebello, who did the public speaking project. Eric Barone, who did the videogame development, and many other examples in my book. One of the things that I noticed is the commonality between all these people, is that they're taking on sort of self-directed learning projects. So I say self-directed as supposed to self-education, because what I want to emphasize is that this is a project where the individual who is learning is the one in charge. They’re deciding what they want to learn. How they want to learn it and what resources they want to use, as supposed to how we typically think about education, which is where a teacher just kind of tells you what to do and you're expected to just follow along.
So this is sort of an inversion of that process where maybe you'll even go to a class if you decide that’s the best resource, but it's always you seeking out what you should be doing rather than just being told what to do or just waiting for the right solution to come. This was a pattern that was repeated amongst many of the really successful learners I found.
Then the second thing that I think really characterized a lot of people is that they had a focus on efficiency and really going beyond what would sometimes be seen as normal or necessary for being able to do something really well. I think this is a really important characteristic, because we can talk about some of the cognitive science of learning that I kind of – And covered both in looking at these stories and also doing research from the literature. And there's many, many situations where doing something that feels a little harder in the beginning and feels maybe a little bit more stressful, maybe even a little bit more frustrating, is nonetheless more effective if you're actually talking about acquiring real skills.
So, I mean, Benny Lewis is the classic example. He's going and actually having conversations with people even though they’re like reading from a phrasebook and they’re speaking something back to him and he's stuttering and struggling. Even though that's a very minimalist sort of way of doing that, it is a more effective approach than just spending seven or eight months on dual lingo where you're kind of feeling that sense of accomplishment but you’re not actually doing the real thing that matters. And so this is a pattern that repeats quite often. So ultralearning was sort of my attempt to characterize the people who are very good and very effective at overcoming these difficulties.
[00:14:47] MB: That's a great example, and the point about learning and really powerful learning, needing to be self-directed is something that's really critical.
[00:14:57] SY: Yeah, absolutely. I think in the world we live in right now, we just cannot take for granted that the teachers, or that the employers that we have, or the schools that we encounter are going to necessarily give us the skills that we want and that we need. Many of us go to college and get undergraduate degrees and find that it was mostly useless, because the person who is teaching us maybe had their own ideas about what we should be learning and they weren’t really driven by us.
[00:15:21] MB: What you do if you don't know where to start or you're unsure about the direction to take with your learning?
[00:15:29] SY: Absolutely, and this is a big problem, because obviously the counterargument to doing self-directed learning is shouldn't the teacher know better? Shouldn't the University know what you need to study? After all, they know it. They’re the one designing the course, and you're not. You don't actually know. So how do you know what the right way to learn a certain thing is?
So the first principle of my book – So I divide my book into nine principles of learning. The first principle I talk about is meta-learning. So meta-learning means learning about learning, and the key here is that before you start any learning activity, you want to spend – It doesn't have to be a huge amount of time. It just can even be a couple hours on Google just looking around at things at what is the right way to learn this skill.
So there's a couple lenses for looking at that. One is to look at what resources are out there. So what books exist? What apps exist? What tutorials exist? What sort of programs are there? What are some of the tools that I can use to get better at this? Sometimes getting better is just going to be, well, just go out and do it. So if we’re talking about like public speaking. All right. Maybe I'll go to Toastmasters and I'll start practicing my public speaking. For other things, you might need a book. I mean, you can't just learn quantum mechanics by trial and error. You probably need a textbook. So it helps to look at the resources.
The other thing that's really important here too though is to look at how people who have successfully learned this skill in the past have learned it. And this is something where I think there's a huge gap between how most people approach things and what experts say. So the perfect example of this is I've done a few podcasts now with people who have language learning podcasts. So people who speak several languages or more and their whole lives are centered around language learning.
And I was joking to them about how, “I’m not a huge fan at dual lingo, and I'm always real hesitant to say things like this with people who have very strong opinions, because occasionally you'll meet some polyglot that they have a very favorite method that they love.” And it was really funny to talk to all these people who none of them like dual lingo, but yet it's the most popular language learning app.
So in some ways there's a real disconnect between what people who are good at learning these skills say works and say matters and what has worked for them, and what most people kind of gravitate towards, which is often something that feels good and fine, but doesn't work very well. So I think about this in many, many cases, and a lot of this can simply be fixed by you go on Google and type, “What's the best way to learn a language?” You spend an hour or two reading articles and you’ll already have a good sense of what the challenges are and what methods might be useful for you.
[00:17:52] MB: That's a great starting point, and that's definitely something that I've personally used when I'm trying to learn or master a new skill. Recently, a couple of years ago, I wanted to learn more about chess, and I Googled and the fastest way to learn chess or 80-20 chess principles, all these kinds of different phrases. And I found a couple different strategies that if you just study this one thing, you can study 20% of the material and get 80% of the results.
[00:18:17] SY: Oh, absolutely. And I think it is important to realize that meta-learning and doing this kind of preparation, it doesn't obviate the need to do the work. I mean, if you want to have a certain skill. If you want to know certain things, then you do actually have to practice and you have to do it. I think the thing that's important to stress here and what I'm really trying to argue with is ultralearning is not some shortcuts so that you can find some way that you don't actually have to do the work to learn something and to know something, but rather to prevent you to go down dead ends. Because a lot of learning involves going down dead ends. It involves spending a lot of time on something that turns out to not matter so much.
So if you can laser-in on what are going to be not only the things that you need to learn, but also the ways in which you will be able learn those things the most effective way possible, you will save yourself a lot of time. It's unfortunate that a lot of the traditional approaches that we have for learning things are not often that well-optimized, because they are for different goals. Therefore, making the class easy for the teacher to grade, or therefore meeting certain academic requirements that may not be the same requirements you have for a hobby or for a job.
[00:19:22] MB: It's a big theme that we talk about a lot on the show, which is basically this idea that there's no such thing as a get smart quick scheme.
[00:19:29] SY: That is absolutely true, and I would agree with that. And I think if you read my book, and you were talking about it. Again, I'm talking about doing things in short periods of time and often somewhat kind of almost unbelievably so if we’re talking the people who have done things in a very short period of time. But I hope that you will realize as you both read the book and you look at it, that some of these really ambitious feats are again a result of someone working really hard. So it's not the case that they didn't work hard. Also, again, really lasering-in on exactly what needs to be done. So it's doing the same work that you need to do for learning, but just with less of the waste.
[00:20:02] MB: I think it's worthwhile to unpack this a little bit more, and you touched on some of the basic strategies for meta-learning. But how do you, in a really tactical sense, start to drill down and figure out exactly what are the really high-impact effective learning strategies and what the dead ends are.
[00:20:19] SY: Right. So I think – And again, I divide in my book these nine principles or going over, specifically, a problem that a lot of learners have with many domains. So the principal is kind of the antidote. So if the way we typically learn has certain flaws, then the principle is the antidote. And one of those principles that I talk about is directness.
So I’ve already been hinting at it throughout this conversation. But the basic idea of directness is simply that if you want to get good at something, you need to do the thing that you want to get good at. If you want to know something, it always helps to ask yourself where and how will I use this knowledge before you start learning it so that you can do some practice in an environment that is really similar to where you actually want to use it.
This is actually based on really over 100 years of psychological studies that show that human beings are bad at something that psychologists call transfer. So transfer is when you learn something in one context, let's say in a classroom, and then you apply it to another context. So, let's say, real life. And the challenge here is that the way that we kind of often casually think about learning is that we think about learning like it's a muscle. So we think about, “Okay. Well, when I'm doing this brain training game, I'm training my brain to be smarter for other things. Or when I think critically about one problem, I'm improving my reasoning about something else.” Just, again and again, we show that when people learn things, they tend to be not only quite specific, but also tend to stay kind of stuck almost to the situations and contexts that you learn them in. So learn some formula in your physics textbook, but then in your engineering job in the real world you completely forget it, because it's difficult to transfer that knowledge.
So because there's so many of these studies that demonstrate this difficulty and this challenge, the ultralearning, I meant, often combat it by inverting that principle. That if you want to learn a language to have conversations, then you better be having conversations pretty early on. If not, right from the beginning, like Benny Lewis does. If you're waiting 6 to 9 months to do it, then you're going to have a lot of problems.
Similarly with programming, that if you want to be able to write computer programs, you need to write computer programs. Yet, in many universities, the way that will teach you and test you on computer programs is to write programs out on pencil and paper and then they will grade them, which is obviously never how you write a program in real life, other than maybe just a broad sketch of a program.
This is something that also has a lot of drilling down potential. So there's sort of the broad idea about doing it. But as you understand this principle of transferring, this principle of directness, you can start to see how you can make adjustments to your approach to make what you're doing more effective. So I have a really good example that I like, because I think it's something very subtle that I think a lot of people would miss when they’re learning and yet it makes a big difference.
So starting in about January, I started learning salsa dancing with my wife, and we were going to classes, and we are doing some sort of choreography in the class. So you'll do like a turn and then you spin them, and they spin you and you go under their arms or whatever, and it's like about 30 seconds, maybe less of stepping back and forth, and that's the move, and you will learn that, and then you rotate with new dancers and just kind of the learn it in the classroom.
Then we decided to go to a social, where you actually just dance with people and there is no teacher telling you what to do right in that instance. And we found it really difficult, even though we were doing so well in the class. So what was going on there?
One of the major problems is that when you are in the class learning the choreography, as a lead, as the person who is deciding what choreography you’re going to follow, you don't actually have to do those subtle things with your body to communicate where you want your follow to go. You just know that they know what you're both trying to do the same choreography and just do it, right?
So this is an example of where transfer fails, because you were missing some of the skills that actually are needed in the real world when you were training in the kind of simulation or in the sort of classroom environment. So this principle of directness, I think it has kind of a very obvious connection of do the skill you want to get good at. But if you really understand it, it's quite deep. So you can start to analyze little places where your skills might not be lining up with the thing you want to get good at, because of differences in how they’re actually practiced.
[00:24:37] MB: It’s such an elegantly simple point that I feel I could definitely apply better to many areas of my own life. If you want to get good at something, you actually have to do the thing that you want to get good at.
[00:24:48] SY: Yes. I mean, that's again the obvious sort of like high-level version of it, but don't let the obviousness or the simplicity of that statement fool you. I think there are many, many cases, even for me having written the book on this kind of stuff that I make the mistake, because I forgot about transfer or because I thought something was the same as something else and then they were different in a subtle way, and I only appreciate that later. So this is something again that if you get better and better at it, like many of the ultra-learners who I documented in the book who are real masters of this, you can make your learning more effective, because you are really not wasting the time with learning a bunch of things that don't end up transferring.
[00:25:28] MB: Well, like so many of the most important things in life. It's simple, but it's not easy.
[00:25:32] SY: Yes. That is definitely true.
[00:25:35] MB: Earlier, you touched on the principle of retrieval and started talking about that a little bit. Tell me a little bit more about retrieval. What is it and how do we start to apply that principle of ultralearning?
[00:25:47] SY: So I think you'll appreciate this, but there is a great set of studies done by Jeffrey Karpicke. I think he’s at University of Purdue, and they really demonstrate this principle retrieval really well. So rather than give away what retrieval is, I’d like to just kind of talk a little bit about these studies, because I think they're really fascinating.
So in one of the studies, he divided students up into multiple groups. One of the groups he says – Or whoever was running the experimenter. I don’t know if there was actually Prof. Karpicke, but the experimenters get you to do repeated review for a text in order to study for a test. So this is very similar to how a lot of students study for tests, where they read something over and then when they're done, they read it over again, and maybe they do some trivial stuff, like maybe re-transcribe their notes or do something like that. But they're basically just looking at it again and again and again in the hopes that they will remember it for the test.
Another group, they got to do what they call free recall. So free recall is when after you read the text, you close the book and then sort of without any prompt, without any questions, you just try to remember is much as you can from what you just read. After they did this – So they did this little test and they asked the students how well do you know the information? The people who did repeated review gave themselves high marks. They said, “I really understand this information well. I know it.” On the other hand, the people did free recall gave themselves very low scores. They’re like, “Oh wow! I didn't remember anything. This was so difficult.”
However, you give those same students an actual test and it inverts. Those who do free recall perform much better than those who do repeated review, and this is a really robust principle. So it's amazing that if you look at the vast majority of students, how they’re actually studying, it’s repeated review. They’re just looking at the notes again and again and again, and that doesn't work very well if you actually want to be able to remember things later or be able to use them in a real situation.
So another study, which I thought was really funny, because this study was just – The students were forced to use a particular learning technique. So they were just told to do repeated review or free recall. But in another study, they were given the choice. So students were allowed to choose which technique they wanted to use to study. And what they noticed is that poor performing students, the students who weren't doing as well, often opted for repeated review, because they weren’t ready to do recall or retrieval practice.
On the other hand, if you force those same students to do retrieval, so through experimental manipulation, you don't allow them to do review. They have to do retrieval practice. They do better on tests. So this is another example of where our intuitions about how we learn and how we ought to process information often lead us astray. And it's amazing how many times this comes up, not even just in taking tests, but in real life. So if you're practicing a speech. How many people read their note cards over and over and over again to memorize a speech? Don't do this. Put the notecards down and try to remember the speech, and only when you can't recall something, look at your note cards. That's the way to memorize a speech. It's not looking at the notecards over and over again. Yet, for many, many skills, this is how we practice it.
[00:28:44] MB: It’s such a counterintuitive finding, this idea that in many instances, the most difficult and frustrating learning strategies are actually the strategies that produce the most long-term learning.
[00:28:57] SY: So it actually even goes beyond that. So, R.A. Bjork, one of the psychologists that I talk about this chapter in retrieval even has a concept that he calls desirable difficulties, which basically mean that the more difficult it is to retrieve things, so the harder a time you have to remember something, like the less help there are, the less hints there are, the less cues there are. As an example of this, doing free recall is about as hard as it gets, because you don't have any prompts. Whereas if you have to do recall when someone gives you a question, that's a bit easier. If someone gives you a fill in the blank. It's even easier than that. If someone gives you like the first two thirds of the word you're supposed to remember, that’s even easier, right?
And so what they found is that the more difficult the retrieval is, provided you're successful in remembering it, the more effective it is. So it seems that difficulty and doing things that are frustrating and doing things that are hard may be at a very fundamental level what we need to be doing if we want to learn, and that a lot of the things that we do to make ourselves feel more comfortable and avoid those feelings are actually in the wrong direction when it comes to learning.
[00:29:59] MB: So if we are applying these principles in our own lives and being self-directed learners who are no longer in school, what is a concrete way to start to implement something like retrieval into our learning practices?
[00:30:11] SY: So retrieval impacts a lot of things. I just gave the example of like when you're memorizing a speech that you have to give. That would be the way to do it. And I think the right thing to think about with retrieval is think about anything that you need to remember. So think about things that have to come up without you necessarily being able to look them up. This is something that’s often underrated, because in our modern world, it's easy to look things up.
But I can give a good example of something were retrieval might come into play. So just imagine for a second. If you're not a computer programmer, try to just imagine for a second, because this is a computer programming problem. But if you are a computer programmer and that's what you do for a living, you might know a certain way to solve a particular problem. So you’ve learned a way to solve a particular problem.
Now, it may not be the best way to solve that problem. It may actually be bad for certain situations. And then let's say you read somewhere about some other way of solving that problem, and you’re reading it in some book and you’re saying, “Oh! That's very interesting. I should remember that for next time.” But the next time rolls around and you've completely forgotten that way of doing the problem and you go back to the old ineffective way that you had for doing the problem.
So this is an example where doing some kind of retrieval practice, so maybe even just like immediately after you read the article about it, you try to, “Can I explain to myself how this technique works?” Or you might even – If you want to be more sophisticated, you might even like put it in a notebook somewhere so that you could quiz yourself a little bit later about, “Oh, okay. This is this algorithm that I want to remember and I'll put in the notebook.”
I mean, we’re talking the computer programming, but obviously this applies to so many of our jobs. So this is an example where I think retrieval is important, because if know that, “Okay. I can use this particular solution for this kind of problem.” Well then yeah, maybe you don't need to memorize the details. You can just look it up in Google. But if you don't remember that there is a solution to this kind of problem that you're encountering in real life that might work, you're never going to be able to use it. You’re not even going to think to look it up in Google.
So this is one of the examples of where everyday life, where you're just trying to be good at your job, you’re just trying to do your work better, be able to understand things better, be able to do things in your life better where these principles have I think pretty pervasive impacts on how you should think and learn.
[00:32:23] MB: Hey, I'm here real quick with confidence expert, Dr. Aziz Gazipura to share another lightning round insight with you. Dr. Aziz, how can people say no more often and stop people pleasing?
[00:32:37] AG: This is not only important to figure out how to do, but to start practicing immediately. Because most people don't realize their anxiety, their stress, their overwhelm is often a result of not saying no. So here are some quick tips on how to start doing that.
First of all, imagine right now in your life where would you benefit from saying no? Where do you feel overloaded, pressured, overwhelmed, even if intellectually you're telling yourself you should? Tune in to your heart. Tune in your body where do you feel, “I don't want to.” Start paying attention to that. Start honoring that.
The next tip is to imagine saying no and then notice how you feel, because you’re problem going to feel all kinds of good stuff, right? Guilt, fear, “What are they going to think? I don’t want to let this person down.” What you want to do is before you go say no to them, you want to work through that. You want to address that. You want to get it on on paper. Can I say this? Why can't I say this? What's stopping me from doing this? Do a little prep work so you can really just practice it.
And then the third and most important step of course is going to be to go say no and start saying no liberally. Start saying no regularly. In fact, after listening to this, find an opportunity that day to say no, because the more you do it, like anything else, like any sub-skill of confidence, the more you do it, the easier it will become and the freer you’ll become in your life.
[00:33:53] MB: Do you want the confidence to say no and boldly ask for what you deserve? Sign up for Dr. Aziz’s Confidence University by visiting successpodcast.com/confidence. That success podcast.com/confidence and start saying no today.
[00:34:15] MB: I want to explore another one of the topics and one of the core pillars of ultralearning. Tell me a little bit more about experimentation.
[00:34:24] SY: Yeah. So experimentation is the sort of last kind of principle that I put in the book with these nine principles. And the main thing that I wanted to stress for experimentation was – Well, there're two things. So the first thing is simply that a lot of people, they want a step-by-step formula. So they want you to tell them step one this. Step to this. Step three this. And that can be helpful. I think that can often be helpful in the beginning, but the problem is that a lot of the challenges that we face don't really boil down to step-by-step.
If you want to start a successful business, I guarantee you there is no step-by-step formula. Why? Because the people following the step-by-step formula have made those kinds of businesses. There's a lot of competition. It's can it be difficult to succeed. Similarly, if you want to be a successful writer, or artist, or programmer, or architecture, or podcaster, you name it. There is no formula, because as soon as the formula becomes popular, everyone else is doing it and it sort of become stale a little bit.
So in a lot of ways, what we need to do in our learning efforts and in our lives in general is have this capacity for experimentation, is the capacity to try things out. See what's going to happen and then see what some results are and then monitor and make those adjustments. I think this is particularly true for learning, because the second point I wanted to make is that when we are learning things, a lot of what makes someone really successful in these sorts of self-directed learning projects, these ultralearning projects that I’ve talked about, isn't so much that they followed this step-by-step formula. They just knew about these three or four tactics and they just apply them and they had a lot of success.
Rather, it's from developing a sort of intuition that you have about when things are slowing down, when things are getting stuck. Why they're getting stuck? So you can sort of devise loops and little detours around your obstacles.
So many of us, we just have one solution to a particular problem and we just apply it relentlessly. And when it doesn't work, we just apply it some more. So I think the idea of experimentation is that we need to not only cultivate a lot of tools. We need to learn lots of different ways that we can solve our problems, learning, and otherwise. But then also we need to be flexible and recognizing, “When is this not working and when do I need to adjust that approach?”
So learning, and I think anything to do with improvement in life involves not only getting better at things and not only applying successful strategies, but also being willing to fail and being willing to make mistakes at times too.
[00:36:46] MB: Lots of great ideas that I want to explore from that. One of them, you touched on this notion of cultivating multiple different tools and strategies. Tell me more about that and how do we do it.
[00:36:56] SY: Yeah. So one of the things that I wanted to do with this book was to show in the particular domain of learning a lot of different tools people use, not to say that these tools are the panacea. So if you read my book, it’s definitely not the case that I'm saying, “Well, if you just use, let’s say, space repetition systems as an example, then all your problems will be solved.”
Some people really think that. They really do like space repetition systems. For them, it’s their favorite tool, or for other people's it’s mnemonics, or for other people it's using visual imagery as an explanatory tool, or for other people it’s getting their hands dirty and they don't like theory. For other people, they like book learning. They like to explore a lot of theory first.
So my idea here was to not only present a lot of these tools, space repetition systems, mnemonics, etc., so that you would have these ideas just in the back of your head that you know they exist. But then also tried to explain what sort of problems do they tend to solve. So when you're experiencing difficulties in something you’re learning, you can save yourself, “Didn’t Scott talk about some tool that might be helpful for this situation?”
So some of them are actual tools, like actual software. So space repetition systems are a good example of that. They are a software you can get. One of the more popular open-source ones is called on Anki, and it basically is an intelligent flash card system where you can create flashcards and it will allow you to remember information better, because instead of just testing you and then you just have to go through your flashcards again, it perfects kind of the timing. So it tries to predict when you're just about to forget something to give you the card as a reminder, but not reminding yourself insistently about the things that you already know.
So it's a tool for optimizing things, and that's very useful for memory-heavy subjects like law, or languages, or biology, or medicine. It can often be very useful for that. But that's just one technique. That’s just one tool, and I think the more tools that you have, the more that you're aware of, the more you can approach any problem with a Swiss Army knife instead of a hammer.
[00:38:57] MB: And that's a great analogy and one that actually Charlie Monger, who’s one of my all-time intellectual heroes and longtime fans of the show, will know that we talk about Monger a lot. But this whole notion, I think you made a great point, which is that software tools are important. But really one of the cornerstones of this is to cultivate these mental models, these thinking tools, these learning tools that you can apply flexibly in a lot of different situations.
[00:39:19] SY: Well, and that's one of the things that I talk about in the book as well, is about meat-leaning that we talked about kind of the short term benefits of doing that, where you do some burst of research on a project and then already you know, “Okay. Well, if I want to learn a language, use these three things. Don't use these other seven things. Okay, so that's good.”
But then in the long-term, as you do more projects and especially if you're doing projects in different areas, you accumulate more of these mental models. You understand how the world works. You understand how learning works. So once you, let's say, mastered memorization in one subject, you know some of those tools, you comply to another.
So I had a conversation with a he guy who is learning Mandarin Chinese, and he was a doctor. So he was very self-confident about the ability to memorize it. He’s like, “No. I know exactly how to memorize things, because I have spent basically my entire life having to memorize a lot of information in medicine.” There are differences in memorizing vocabulary words as there are with memorizing patient otology and this kind of stuff. But at the same time, I think you get that benefit.
So what I'm also trying to advocate in this book is not really just doing one project or just doing one sort of skill that you're going to improve, but as sort of lifelong philosophy of constantly learning new things so that you always are adding new tools and that those tools kind of in some ways it's sort of compounding growth, that as you get more tools, you get more ways you can solve problems, and you become more effective.
[00:40:47] MB: Love the reference to compounding your knowledge, because it's such an important idea and something that I talk about a lot, this notion that if you study and spend your time learning these mental models and these frameworks that either don't change or change very slowly over time, you can really start to compound your understanding the world in a very meaningful way. And over time it starts to lead to these massive changes and shifts and improvements in your ability to think and make decisions and understand reality absolutely.
[00:41:15] SY: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so I think that is really – One of the things – So we started this podcast talking about some of the projects that I've done and some of the projects that I mentioned that other people have done. Sometimes is a little bit of a quality of like, “Oh! Wouldn't it be great if I can learn a language quickly or wouldn't it be nice if I didn't have to spend so long taking classes?”
I think in some ways that approach kind of misses the point, because I think that the greatest moments that we’re going to have in our lives are not going to be just because you got some reward or because someone gave you a trophy or because you got some recognition. They’re going to be because you experience something that expands your sense of what's possible. I think learning, and particularly the kind of learning that I advocate in this book is really at the cornerstone of that.
So if you take on a project and you expand your skills quickly in a direction that you were struggling with before, that opens your mind to, “What other things could I do that I was holding myself back for?” When I did this trip to learn languages, my feeling wasn't just, “Oh great! I can speak more languages now, but that there were so many corners of the world and cultures and people that I knew they existed, but they were kind of opaque. They were sort of not possible for me to connect with and see, and I think the more subjects you learn, the broader and bigger your world becomes. So I think there's really something kind of life-affirming and expansive about viewing life this way through a series of learning projects and of really striving to do learning well.
[00:42:48] MB: And that makes me think of something else that I want to touch on you said earlier, which is this notion that the important skillset to develop in life as a learner, but really in anything, is this ability to be flexible and to experiment. And it's so easy to fall in the trap of just waiting for the formula or the answer or the thing that you think will give you perfect clarity and confidence to make the tough decisions in your life. But the reality is that, that never comes. You just have to get comfortable starting these little experiments and be flexible in adjusting to the things that life throws at you.
[00:43:20] SY: And I think the you hit the nail on the head too, that a lot of people are – Their kind of baseline emotion is some kind of fear or anxiety. That they want the world to be smaller, to be more comprehensible, to follow a list of rules, to have that security, and I think that a lot of times those feelings come out of a sense of inadequacy or incompetence, that if the world is bigger, it’s scarier. It there's more things to understand, if things don't break down to a formula, then I might fail. I might not be able to do it.
So I don't think that I have an answer for that. I don't have the, again, the formula for getting past formulas. But I think if you invest more in your process of learning itself, you build some of that self-confidence. As you build more self-confidence, you become more comfortable with things being ambiguous with there not being a right answer, with trying something when you don't know whether it's going to work.
So I think the more you can take on these kinds of projects and approach things this way, the easier it is to be comfortable, and I think you can turn those feelings of anxiety and fear and worries about what's going to happen in life into feelings of wonder and curiosity.
[00:44:31] MB: There's one other topic that I want to touch on really briefly and share. Can you tell me a little bit about the Feynman technique and how to apply it?
[00:44:39] SY: Yeah, sure. So the Feynman technique was something that I made a video about this technique, probably about in 2011. So a while ago, and it's become somewhat popular since. The idea of the technique was that around the time I was using this, I just read for the first time Richard Feynman's fantastic autobiography, if you haven't read it, called Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. And in it he kind of documents his approach to dealing with difficult problems. So Richard Feynman, for those of you who don't know, was a Nobel prize-winning physicist. He kind of was one of the founders of quantum electrodynamics. So you can tell he’s a pretty smart guy. But what I really liked about him was that he had this kind of fearlessness and kind of iconoclastic way of thinking about problems. So it wasn't just that he was smart, but also that he had a tenacity for dealing with things that he didn't understand and he didn't have this sort of difficulty that some of us do that when we don't understand something, we want to push it away. For him, he really wanted to get his hands dirty.
So I kind came up with this technique that I thought sort of embodied a lot of his philosophy. And the basic idea of it is it let's say you're taking something. Let’s say you’re taking a math class. This is sort of a canonical example of where you might not understand something that a lecturer told you. So you write at the top of the page what it is that you’re trying to understand. You can say like, “Understanding derivatives, or understanding trigonometry,” and you probably want to reduce it down to the most- narrow part of what you don't understand. So if you don't understand, let's say, the sign rule, then put the sign will. Don't just put trigonometry.
Then what you should aim to do is to teach this idea, is to write out an explanation as if you were teaching it to someone else. So you try to explain the idea as if you were going to go on and give a lecture and these were going to be your lecture notes. The thing that I found very valuable about doing this is twofold. So, one, simply by writing down what you don't understand, you often come to understand it. So sometimes just putting your ideas on the paper can overcome the fact that in our head there’s sort of bunch of different things all going on at the same time and it's hard to keep everything straight. So just writing things down can help with that.
The second thing that it helps with is that when you aren’t able to resolve those problems, so you start writing and you don't have an answer to your question. Generally, you zoomed in a little bit. So you’ve gotten a little bit more focused at where the issue you don't understand it. So as you start explaining derivatives, you start to say to yourself, “Well, what’s going on here? I don't understand this.” Then once you don't understand that little piece, then you can go to a textbook. You can go to a teacher. You can go to a colleague. You can go to a pear and you can ask them.
So sometimes that just goes to re-watching that segment of a lecture video and sometimes you don't have that. Sometimes you type Khan Academy or you type into Google how do I do this, or how do you do that, and then an explanation will come up. But this is basically a way of debugging your own understanding, because it reveals what the problem is and then you got a bit of a narrower, more reduced scope to try to solve the problem the next time. And if just keep repeating this process, generally, I find you'll get the answers to your problems and you’ll understand something that you found was difficult before.
[00:47:48] MB: It’s such a great strategy, and reminds me of the quote which I think is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but may not necessarily be his, which is, “If you give me an hour to chop down a tree, I’ll spend 90% of the time sharpening an axe.”
[00:48:02] SY: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s true, and I think so many of us, we want to rush things. So how many students when they see something they don't understand, their instinct is memorize, right? Well, there's no understanding this, so I have to memorize it.”
I've been writing about learning from a long time in book. So I get these emails from students where they’ll say things like, “Well, you don't understand, Scott. And I know you talk about how you should understand things and not like just try to memorize them. But in my class, it’s different. They only want to memorize things.”
So then there's usually bit of back-and-forth and I say, “Okay. Can you give me an example? Give me something from your class?” It's almost always that the example they bring up is like, “No. No. No. You were supposed to understand that.” And I think that something that a lot of us fall into, is that we have some difficulty with something, and maybe the tool that we have in our toolkit is memorization. So if you don't get something immediately, then that's what you think to yourself, “Well, I just have to memorize it.”
So this is one of those situations where there are situations where maybe getting a super deep understanding is not as important. So if you are having to memorize words in a new language, maybe don't need to know the detailed etymology of every single word, although it might not hurt for some words. But at the same time, so many of us sort of fall back on the tools that we understand for learning and we don't have a real broad vocabulary that we can use to approach a lot of different problems. And so it's no wonder that we get stuck from time to time.
[00:49:26] MB: What would one piece of homework be that you would give somebody listening to this that they could start to concretely implement some of the themes and ideas that we've talked about today?
[00:49:37] SY: So the one that I usually lean on, and I mean there's many. We've talked about a lot of different ideas. But the one that I usually put is my sort of most important take away, would be think about something that you are learning right now or that you're trying to learn, and now I want you to think very clearly about what would be the kinds of situations where you would use that knowledge or apply that skill.
So this obviously applies if you're trying to work on an actual skill. So if right now you want to learn French, it might help to think about, “Well, when would actually use French?” This isn’t to dissuade you from learning it if you can't think of an immediate answer. Lots of things you can use in the future don't have an obvious use right now. But even if you say to yourself, “Well, I’d probably use it when I'm traveling.” That already gives you a lot of hints about how you might structure a project, which would be very different if the immediate answer that popped in your head was, “Well, I really like to read The Count of Monte Cristo in French or something like that.
Similarly, if we’re talking about theoretical knowledge. So you're just reading a blog article, listening to a podcast, just reading a business book you found. Asking yourself, “What kinds of situations would this knowledge come up in?” is very useful because you start automatically thinking about not only how you could transfer to those situations, but you also start thinking about where you're going to have to do practice if you actually want to get good at it.
So many people buy books and then they buy a book and then they realize a couple months later, “Oh, wait! My life didn't change it all,” and it's because they didn't actually implement the ideas. It’s because the ideas never made contact with their real life. So of course the ideas stayed really a nerd. So if you can start thinking about these things very early on when you're learning, you'll get more efficacy just because you’ll avoid this problem of transfer and also because you'll be able to start making little tweaks to what you do going forward so you can apply it more easily.
[00:51:24] MB: And Scott, where can listeners find you and the book and your work online?
[00:51:29] SY: Yeah. If you're interested, I highly recommend checking on my book, Ultralearning. You can find links to it on my website at scotthyoung.com. That's S-C-O-T-T-H-Y-O-U-N-G.com, and there I also have over 1,300 articles that I've written over the last 13 years on my blog. So there are quite a few articles there as well for free about learning, about personal development and really a lot of the stuff that I know you talk about here on this podcast.
[00:51:57] MB: Scott, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing all these wisdom with our listeners. Such a great conversation and some really insightful techniques and strategies and ideas about how to be better learners.
[00:52:09] SY: Oh! Thank you so much for having me. It was great.
[00:52:11] MB: Thank you so much for listening to the Science of Success. We created this show to help you, our listeners, master evidence-based growth. I love hearing from listeners. If you want to reach out, share your story, or just say hi, shoot me an e-mail. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s M-A-T-T@successpodcast.com. I’d love to hear from you and I read and respond to every single listener e-mail.
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