Transcript of How Ultralearning Helps You Master New Skills
John Jantsch: This episode of The Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by Klaviyo. Klaviyo is a platform that helps growth-focused eCommerce brands drive more sales with super-targeted, highly relevant email, Facebook and Instagram marketing.
John Jantsch: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Scott Young. He is a learner and we’re going to find out more about what that means, but he’s also the author of a book called, Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart your Competition, and Accelerate Your Career. Scott, thanks for joining us.
Scott Young: Yeah, thanks for having me here.
John Jantsch: Let’s get your definition of ultralearning since that’s the name of the book.
Scott Young: Yeah, so ultralearning is this approach to aggressive self-directed learning and it really started from finding these people that just had these incredible stories. I document some of them in my book. People like Erick Barone who spent five years mastering all the skills of video game development to release a bestselling title or people like Nigel Richards who won the French world scrabble championship, even though he doesn’t speak French. They started by finding these really incredible examples of stories. I found that there was a general sort of approach to this and what it was is people who take self-directed aggressive learning products. Self-directed in this case means that it is initiated and driven by the person who’s doing the project so you’re learning something that you care about as opposed to the way that we think about traditional education where you just sit passively in a classroom. Then aggressive in this case has different manifestations, but the main way I want to think about it is that these people are focused on doing what works to learn even though that sometimes can be a little bit more difficult at first.
John Jantsch: We’ll break down aggressive, that’s a relative term but you shared. I saw you speaking at one of my favorite conferences in the world. I’ll give a shout out to World Domination Summit in Portland. You shared a story about how you embarked on your own kind of first ultralearning project. Maybe share that to give people a sense of the scope of what we’re talking about?
Scott Young: Yeah, the way that I kind of, and as I talked about in my speech that you heard is that I got into this by first uncovering one of the alternatives that I talk about who is Benny Lewis. He has a website which has become quite popular called Fluent in 3 Months where he takes on these projects to travel to a new country and tries to learn a language in as little as three months. I found about this about 10 years ago when I was living in France trying to learn French. It wasn’t going super well. I was struggling. Most of the people around me spoke to me in English and I was having difficulties learning French. It was uncovering his kind of philosophy towards learning where he was taking on these ambitious projects, but also going to somewhat unusual lengths to learn things.
Scott Young: This actually resulted in several years after that experience of trying to learn French actually went with a friend to do our own version of that project, which we called The Year Without English, where we went to four different countries, Spain, Brazil, China, and South Korea to learn Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Chinese, and Korean. The method that we used was what we called the no English rule. When we landed in those countries, we only spoken the language we were trying to learn. The funny thing as I talked about in my speech that I gave is that when I say this to people, people are like, oh my God, that sounds crazy. Like, there’s no way I could do something like that. The funny thing I found is that because it was more effective, it was actually a lot easier than the approach that I’d taken in France.
Scott Young: This is what I wrote the book about is trying to show people these alternative approaches to learning hard skills and show that even though they can sometimes be a little bit more tricky right at the beginning, by using an effective method, you get so much better so much more quickly that you avoid a lot of the frustrations and pitfalls that normal learners face when they’re trying to learn things like languages, but also career skills, programming, all sorts of things.
John Jantsch: Well, and in fact, you also shared a story that you accomplished what was the amount or equivalent of an MIT computer programming degree in two years. I may have got that wrong, but essentially you also showed a giant pile of books. I think a lot of people hear stuff like this and they think, oh, ultra learning, it’s a hack to do it faster, but it’s still a heck of a lot of work, right?
Scott Young: Yeah. The way I’ve been trying to explain ultralearning is that, so there’s no secret, there’s no like, okay, well those are just some kind of weird trick that no one’s ever heard of before to learn things. I mean, there are lots of tools that are underused, so there’s a lot of little specific things that we could talk about that your learners could use to apply or your listeners could use to apply to learn better. I think the way that I think about ultralearning, and this is a recurring theme, and this is why I picked that word aggressive, is that very often something that is initially a little bit scarier or a little bit more frustrating is actually much more effective. The reason that a lot of these approaches are less common is because people won’t do the thing that actually works really well because it sounds like too much but if they were to actually do it, if they were actually pushed to do that or forced to do that, they would find it’s actually easier than they think.
Scott Young: They would actually learn a lot more effectively. There’s even some interesting research relating to this. One of the principles I talk in the book I call retrieval. Retrieval is this scientific idea that if you try to recall things actively from your memory so you don’t have the book open, you just try to close the book and try to recall it, you’ll remember a lot more when the test comes than if you just read notes or read things over and over again. One of the things that was interesting is that they took participants in this study and found that weaker performing students, so students who weren’t doing as well, they wanted to keep reviewing. They’re not ready to do practice testing, they aren’t ready to do this retrieval.
Scott Young: If someone forced them to do retrieval so that they weren’t allowed to do that review, they actually scored better on the test. This repeats a theme in the book and a theme that I try to say in my message that ultralearning isn’t magic. It’s not a secret. The reason that it works is because very often people are not aware that there’s these differences in how you learn things. Sometimes the more difficult, or I would say more initially difficult method is actually much more effective. If you can push yourself to do it, you’ll actually get better results.
John Jantsch: I think most people’s experience with learning goes back to the typical school curriculum book type of learning. I’ve heard you say that ultralearning gets you to the fun part of learning faster. What part is that exactly?
Scott Young: Well, I mean, when we start learning a new skill, there’s often feelings of inadequacy, fear of comparison with other people. Even I’m not immune to this. I recently started learning salsa dancing. I got two left feet. I’m not a very smooth dancer in any way. I remembered going in the beginning of the intro classes and I’m screwing up really basic stuff. I’m not keeping to the rhythm. I remember feeling bad. I’m feeling like, why am I doing this? Why am I putting in this effort when it just feels bad? I think this is what scares a lot of people off from taking on learning projects, learning to speak Spanish when they’ve always wanted to learn Spanish, or learning guitar lessons, or learning to program, or getting better at public speaking, or whatever matters to you. A lot of times it’s this feeling that you get in the beginning of learning where you feel inadequate that makes you reluctant to do this. What ultralearning is often about is about how do you get over those sort of, you kind of blow through those initial phases so you can get to the part where you’re like, oh actually I’m not bad at this.
Scott Young: As soon as you’re not bad at something, learning becomes fun because it is something you’re competent in. For learning a language for instance, when you start speaking Spanish, it feels awful because your ability is really low and people are, you know, “What? What did you say? I don’t understand.” You’re having a bunch of difficulties, but once you can have some minor conversations or you have some interactions where that person understood what you said and now it feels good, now you feel like, “Oh, this is impressive. I have this ability.” For me, ultralearning is often about like, how do you take something that does feel a little bit daunting and you compose it into some steps so you can get through that difficult, frustrating part so that learning stops becoming this chore and becomes this fun activity so that you just enjoy doing it.
John Jantsch: There’s so many people that give the advice of, you know, for people looking for a career or starting a business, “You should do something you love.” I think a lot of what you’re saying is you’ll love something you get good at. If you get good at it faster, that might be a way to actually make a career choice.
Scott Young: Absolutely. Yeah, definitely it’s the case that for a lot of people I think the things that we love are just the things that by happenstance we happen to get good at. For me, this book is not really just a book about learning but a book about finding more things that you love because when you’re good at more things, you love more things. For a lot of people they’ll say things to themselves like, oh, I hate math. Well you hate math because you were bad at math or because it was challenging or because you felt like, “Well, I worked really hard and I only got a B on that exam.” If you were really good at math, if people constantly gave you feedback about how smart and how clever you are, I mean there are people who are like this. I mean, they’re not the majority but they love math. It’s the same thing with lots of skills. I’m not saying you have to learn math, but if you understand the learning process, understand what you need to do to get good at skills, you can love all sorts of things even if you feel like you’re bad at them right now.
John Jantsch: You brought out the, and I’ll use your Canadian process word, is there a specific process for ultralearning?
Scott Young: Yeah, the way I broke down the book was into nine principles. The reason I focused on principles is because in many ways what I’m trying to do is to get people away from the ways of thinking about learning that have held them back in the past. One of those things that I think that has held people back in the past is that there’s one right way to do everything and then you try it. If it doesn’t work for you, then the problem is you. The right way to think of it is that there are many, many, many different ways to learn the thing that you care about as long as you are paying attention to what are the principles of learning. There’s often very different ways you can go about things and still get to the same result.
Scott Young: The first principle and really the starting point for any learning project is what I call metalearning. Metalearning is just a fancy term. Meta usually means when something’s about itself. Metalearning means learning about learning. In this case, what that means is that if you’re going to learn a new skill or subject, it often pays dividends to spend about an hour or two online doing some research of how do other people learn this skill? What are the pitfalls they have? What are the things that people struggle with? What are the resources they use? As you go through this, you’ll find lots of different options because pretty much any popular skill has many, many tutorials online, many different perspectives on the right way to learn it. You can use that as a starting point. Then of course, the other principles that I have.
Scott Young: There’s eight more principles in the book, it can also provide guidance so you can help choose methods that not only suit you and your schedule and your lifestyle and your personality, but also fit within the overall principles of learning so that you will make sure that you don’t get derailed and you don’t spend six or seven months working on something only to find that it didn’t get you the results that you wanted.
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John Jantsch: Here’s a question that I’m sure you probably get occasionally. I mean, aren’t there some people just smarter than other people? I mean, they’re going to learn something that’s more complex than others or is that really just a limiting belief?
Scott Young: Well, I will say this, I do believe that there are different people who have different talents. That even within individuals, we have things that we’re good at, that we’re bad at. Some of that is related to experience. One of the things I talk about in my book is that very often what people misconstrue as being innate talent is actually a difference in prior experience. For me, for instance, I felt really crappy in my French class 10 years ago because I was near the bottom of the class. It was only after talking to people for a while that I realized, oh actually these people have studied French for longer than I have. In the beginning, my negative feelings were thinking, well, I’m just not as good at this but really it was that they had more experience. Similarly, I think a lot of us can often go into let’s say a computer programming class and not realize that the wiz kid who seems to be so smart is actually been doing it since he was five and that’s why he’s so good at the class and why you’re struggling. That would be the first thing I would say.
Scott Young: The second thing I would say is that yes, there are differences in talent. I think that that should also make you not feel bad if you feel like you’re going slower than someone else. If you’re learning something that’s taking a little bit longer, that’s perfectly fine. However, there are large differences that you can get from using the right method. Often I find that what happens to us is that the things that we feel we are good at are usually the things that just sort of by chance we ended up using a really effective approach for learning it and so we think of ourselves as being really good at it, but it was really more just, you unwittingly use these principles of learning.
Scott Young: I wanted to lay them out in the book so that you can see something that you’ve tried in the past and maybe struggled with and see yourself, “I was doing this and that’s why it was so hard for me.” That’s what I want to do with this book is not to deny that there’s any differences between people and everyone’s equally talented. Because if you look around the world, that seems to not be the case, but definitely that the potential you have and the amount that you can get better and especially on things that you have not done well in the past is much larger I think than most people believe.
John Jantsch: You have large swaths of this book talking about career advancement. Would you say that this is, if you want to advance your career, adding things that you can do, being able to speak another language. Your company is global and so now you have an option to work over here and you can program computer languages now and things. I mean, would you say that that, I mean, it just makes sense as a way to advance your resume if you will.
Scott Young: Absolutely. The way when I was doing the research in the book, one of the things that came up was this phenomenon known as skill polarization. We all know that income inequality is rising. I mean this is what every news report tells us, that the rich get richer. If you actually dig into this, and this was done by the economist, MIT economist David Autor, you find that there’s actually two different things going on. What’s happening is that the incomes are being stretched out at the top of the distribution and they’re being compressed at the bottom. The right way to view this I think is to imagine that the middle class lifestyle that we’ve all kind of been culturally conditioned is sort of our birthright, that’s what’s disappearing. That’s what’s getting squeezed into the bottom or spread out at the top.
Scott Young: Part of the reason for this is that computers and automation and technology are coming and they eliminate jobs and while they create new jobs in their wake, a lot of those new jobs are more complicated. At the same time, tuition is getting much more expensive. Going back to college or even if they do teach things at college, they often don’t, going back to school is often not the most responsible option just because the cost is so high. For me in writing this book, I realized that learning in this way or learning skills, this is not just a frivolous thing just for learning a language or guitar, but really a process for getting really good at anything you care about. Whether that thing is again, learning a new computer programming language, getting really good with Excel, learning public speaking, getting good at marketing, getting good at communication, getting good at leadership, these are all skills.
Scott Young: These are all things that you get better at them by learning, not necessarily learning through a book or a textbook. I’ll talk about in ultralearning that often the way that we think about learning that way is wrong. But it’s definitely something that I would approach differently. I think if you can view your career in this light, that your success in your career depends at you being good at things I think that that obviously fits into this picture of ultralearning.
John Jantsch: I will give you your opportunity to be polarizing yourself here. Is college just not cutting it?
Scott Young: Well, I will say this because this is one of the things as well. A lot of people when I wrote this book were saying, “Are you going to say that this is the alternative university?” In some ways it isn’t, not because college is often super great but because there are certain professions or certain career paths where having a degree is necessary. I mean, if I’m going to become a lawyer, I can’t just ultralearn law and then go practice it. I mean, people are going to expect me to have a degree and it’s actually not even legal to practice a lot of professions without college education. The right way to think about it is that a lot of what we are expected to know and be able to perform in our jobs and in our careers is not going to be something taught in school. For many of us, what you actually do on your day to day job is very unrelated to the thing that you actually learned in school.
Scott Young: Where do you learn to get good at that? You learn it by doing, working on the job and by doing projects like these. Then also, I think in many ways college is not cutting it because it is kind of becoming increasingly divorced from the actual realities of the workplace. In many cases there are these issues of transfers. One of the most extensively studied problems in the educational psychology literature is this problem of transfer. That you teach things to a student in a classroom and they just can’t apply it to very obvious situations in real life. Often that’s the way we teach and often that’s just sort of a symptom of the education system in general but that’s definitely a big problem if you spend four years in school and all of that knowledge that you learned is useless when it actually comes to doing the job.
John Jantsch: All right, I want to start my own ultralearning project and of course I’m going to go buy Ultralearning by Scott Young when it comes out. How would I go about getting started? How do you advise people to start an ultralearning project?
Scott Young: As I said, the starting point is always this metalearning. It’s always trying to figure out what are the possible default or starting points for learning things.
John Jantsch: Let me back up a little before that. How do we decide even what to learn?
Scott Young: Okay, good question. There’s two reasons you might want to learn something. The first is an intrinsic project. This could be like, I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish or I’ve always wanted to know how to program computers, or I’ve always wanted to be able to play the guitar, give beautiful speeches, or what have you. If you’re starting with an intrinsic project that’s just sort of what inspires you and often that’s how these projects come about is that they become useful skills, but they start from a different point. The other way that you can start a project is that you actually want to do something. I think this is very relevant because learning is really about bridging the gap between what you can do right now and what you could do if you were able to acquire new skills. Often what it is not, well I want to do some learning project, but I would like to change careers, or I would like to write a book, or I would like to become a presenter, or I would like to do something that is outside of my realm of ability right now.
Scott Young: When you’re doing that, the next thing to do is to say, well how would I be able to do that? Often it can be a project to do that thing or to get better at it. If you want to get better at writing a book, you might start with a project of writing a book, but that’s usually the starting point of, okay, well I’m going to try to write this book. How do I get good at the skills involved in writing? You might develop some things around practicing, some things around trying to improve your writing ability, of identifying components that you’re going to work on in practice. There is some nuance to that, but definitely I think that’s a useful way to think about it is that a lot of the things that you want to accomplish that you don’t feel like you can right now, think of those as learning projects rather than just, well yeah, I don’t know how to do that. I can’t do that. Right?
John Jantsch: Scott, where can people find out more? Of course, the book will be out everywhere that books are sold in August of 2019 depending on when you’re listening to this, but where can people find out more about you and your work with Ultralearning?
Scott Young: Absolutely. You can go to my website at scotthyoung.com, that’s S-C-O-T-T-H-Y-O-U-N-G.com. I have over 1,300 articles that have written there over the last 13 years on all sorts of subjects including learning. Of course they can check out the book. If you just Google Ultralearning or you go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble’s or wherever you get your books from, you can find the Ultralearning book. You know what? If anyone who is listening now ends up getting the book and applying it to learning a skill that they care about, I would love to hear about it so please send me an email if you get a chance.
John Jantsch: You’re collecting ultralearning success stories, aren’t you?
Scott Young: I would love that. Yeah.
John Jantsch: Maybe I’ll come up with one of mine. I’m not sure I can fit much more in my brain, but maybe I’ll come up with one and I’ll be one of your case study. Scott, great visiting with you and hopefully I’ll run into you in beautiful Vancouver someday.
Scott Young: Yes. Thank you so much for having me.