Scott Young is an “ultralearner.” He’s known for learning M.I.T.’s grueling 4-year computer science curriculum in just twelve months. He speaks six languages. In fact, he’s presented his lecturers to audiences in Chinese.

It’s fitting that Scott is also the author of the recently published Wall Street Journal bestseller, Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition and Accelerate Your Career. The book digs into the science and strategies behind amazing feats of mastery and learning. Ultralearning argues why being able to quickly master hard things is an essential skill and shows you exactly how to do it.

I met with Scott to discuss his book, as well as the role habits and distractions, play in supporting or impeding our learning.

Nir Eyal: Why did you write your book?
Scott Young: This book has been the obsession of pretty much my entire adult life. The process of getting good at things fascinates me endlessly, and I think this is a message that’s particularly relevant now. School is unaffordable and inflexible. Many of the skills we need to learn are difficult to teach in normal classes. At the same time, being really good at difficult things is increasingly valuable. The confluence of all these things means that those who can teach themselves hard skills will thrive, and those who can’t will struggle.
NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?

SY: Quite a few things! First, that the actual academic research on feedback shows it can often backfire. Getting the right kind of feedback, and knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore is critical.

Second, that people are lousy at transferring what they learn from books and classes to real situations. Study after study shows that you can spend months (or years) teaching someone a skill and then they fail to apply it in the real world. This is particularly dangerous because if you go back to get an MBA, attend a pricey conference or read a ton of business books—you don’t want that money and effort to go to waste.

Finally, that we’re often wrong about what matters for learning well. Studies on retrieval show that recall beats passive review by a mile, but when given the chance to choose how to study, people often don’t pick it. We think we understand things we really don’t. We think we’ll remember something but then forget it almost immediately. Without knowing this research, I think a lot of people would be surprised at how often their intuitions about learning lead them astray.

NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others?

SY: The biggest lesson is the idea of directness. This is that you ought to ask yourself, before learning anything, “in what kinds of situations will I need to use this knowledge?” and then try to create practice activities that are the same or mirror the thing you’re trying to get good at. Too much learning is indirect and fails to transfer to the real world.

The second lesson is that it’s really possible to teach yourself hard things, with the right approach. Choosing the right method to learn something can make all the difference between success and failure, and yet we usually attribute this to raw talent.

NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?

SY: Wake up and start writing first thing. I went to a coffee shop nearby to get writing. Like you talk about in your book, I found the problem wasn’t literal distractions but my own inability to push through the difficult aspects of writing. Being in an environment where I can’t legitimately claim to be working on something else made that easier for me.

NE: What’s one thing you believe that most people would disagree with?
SY: The brain is not a muscle. Most people think of learning like lifting weights—you learn a lot and you get stronger. The truth is that most learning is remarkably specific, and often welded to the situations you start learning them in. Flexibility and transfer are possible but much harder than most people expect, and usually the result of learning many specific things rather than a simple rule.
NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?
SY: My best habit is to invest in a system to keep track of your tasks and your time. Nothing is worse than trying to remember what you need to do and what you ought to work on.
NE: Are you working changing any bad habits?
SY: Right now I’m working on improving my eating habits. I like red-line rules which are easy to maintain perpetually, but I haven’t been as keen on some of the more common approaches to eating that are like that (paleo, vegan, intermittent fasting, etc.) so I’m working on creating my own rules that fit my life, but I’m still experimenting with what works best.
NE: What one product or service has helped you build a healthy habit?
SY: I like the app DONE which I use for tracking daily habits.
NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading your book?
SY: Learning impacts every part of your life, long after you’ve left school. It determines how good you are at your job, your ability to lead a team, your ability to innovate, produce and excel. Knowing how to learn, and more importantly, having a system for doing it repeatedly and efficiently, is the most valuable skill you can cultivate in our modern age.

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