The better way to improve your skills: full immersion and ultra-learning

No matter what stage you are in your career, there is always something to learn. You could follow typical methods by taking a course.

Or you could 4x your results in half the time by using Ultra Learning: the learning habit that would make Hermione jealous (even with her time turner).

Scott Young shares how he discovered this method to learn the entire 4-year MIT curriculum for computer science…in 1 year…without taking any classes. See how you can also apply this method to your career and life.

Full Transcript

Scott Anthony Barlow 0:00
Where did your career start? Where did all this begin?

Scott Young 0:05
It's been a long time. And I say this because I'm getting older, but I'm not that old yet. But I've been doing this this kind of online stuff for like a long time, I think it's now almost 15 years that I've been doing this. So it's been a while. And so my kind of origin in this was actually when I was in high school, I stumbled upon some people that were running like solopreneur businesses online. And I don't know something about that just like hit all the right buttons for me. And I was like, This is awesome. This is what I want to do with my life, because I really liked the idea of making something this kind of creative aspect of it, yeah, but not having to be kind of, well, at least at the time, the way I thought about it was not having to kind of go through gatekeepers or be judged. It just had this sort of raw, meritocratic, like, if you make stuff that people want to buy, you are successful, if people don't want to buy it, you're not, but there's no person who has to like sign off on or like, give you that stamp of approval. And I think just, you know, everything I had done at that point had often been through this kind of, you know, if you've been through the formal school system, you're very used to this kind of like, there's someone who's deciding whether or not what you're doing is good enough, or whether it's, you know, deserving of this or that. And I had felt at the time, a lot of like traditional employment opportunities, they do have that kind of idea that you're trying to appeal to a small set of people. Now having done it for 15 years, I can say that, I don't think that that perception is entirely accurate. It's certainly the case that, you know, you are also dealing with gatekeepers, and individuals who have enormous influence over whether your business is more successful or not. So this was more of a idealization versus reality thing. But that's what got me started on this was this sort of inspiration of I could be very autonomous and create things. And then if people like them, then I can make a living from it now happened

Scott Anthony Barlow 1:53
after high school, then actually, I

Scott Young 1:55
started the blog, like kind of just right at the end of high school. And it really kind of picked up when I was in university. And so I was sort of a university student, and in parallel writing this blog that was about personal development, but also because I was a student it I talked touched on a lot of studying topics. So I was writing about, you know, how should you study and yeah, and productivity. And this was sort of very much a reflection of my life, because I'm trying to get this business going. I'm trying to, you know, figure out how this whole weird online space of things works, while I'm also being a student, while I'm also dealing with those things. And so if time management was obviously very important, I mean, there's some times in university I was writing like 10 articles a week or something. So it was like, I had this sort of side gig as a writer and top of being a student. And obviously, learning was very important to me, because when you're a student, that's your career is to learn. And so some of my more popular early topics were around this, I think prominently because I didn't have much experience or authority to write about anything else. No one wanted to hear from a 19 year old woman, what he thinks about relationships or something like that. And so the stuff I was writing about learning and studying kind of took off, and my early blog was this kind of student blog about studying and learning. And sort of over the course of my time in university that eventually developed into, I had a small business where I sold a program called Learning on steroids, which was sort of a monthly subscription, kind of a precursor to the courses I do now, that was offering students studying tips. And I sold it at a low price. And it was something that I had a cohort of people that were subscribed to this program. And by the time I graduated from university, that sort of small business was like enough to eke by and I was already in my head, this was my original goal is that I'd like to do this kind of thing for a living. So I was like, great, I don't have to get this intermediate job. And now it's funny because it's, you know, like a decade or more after that, and I feel like from that point of view, it's kind of looking back it's really strange that I you know, I'm in my 30s now, I have a family this kind of thing, but I've like never worked a normal job. Like I've worked some like awful jobs like I've did janitorial work or, you know, summer gigs where I work to like a video rental place, which really dates how long ago flies, but I've not had the traditional, you know, nine to five show up in an office type job. And I've only really done this kind of entrepreneurial thing. One question for you. Obviously, the more important one which video rental place did you work at?

Scott Anthony Barlow 4:27
I work at blockbuster?

Unknown Speaker 4:28
Yeah, no, it

Scott Young 4:28
was a place called movie gallery

Unknown Speaker 4:30
movie gallery. Oh, V

Scott Young 4:32
Gala. Yeah, I can work at and I worked there for one summer that was I think was the first summer after university and I did not put much effort into finding a summer job until it was like, Oh, I need to get a summer job. Because I was in Manitoba. Yeah. And it was in my hometown in small hometown, the Paul Manitoba, which is way up north and I went home for the summer and I had no and I was like, ah, I guess I need to find a job and so I I applied there and It was okay. I think it was definitely extra motivation to get the business going. Because it's so mind numbingly dull all the time. Yeah. And I was just like, Well, I think that can often be having bad jobs, I think also makes you more respectful of your career and this kind of thing. I know, I was talking to someone, like how do I find the motivation to study and whatever it is, and, and I think someone was telling me this, that they were like, well, their advice was, you know, go work a crap job for three years. And then you'll be really eager to, like, invest in your career capital and focus on that. And I mean, I was already motivated to do this. But I think that kind of also gave me a little fire of like, okay, let's make sure we can earn enough money so that I don't have to do this the next summer and I didn't, I was able to, like eat by with like, you know, I mean, not like, this isn't lots of money, but for like, summer job category it was comparable with with, you know, I didn't have to work at movie gallery The next year, and probably wasn't too long after that, that there was no video rental places to work at Pier. Yeah,

Scott Anthony Barlow 6:01
yeah. Not too long after that.

Scott Young 6:03
That probably for the best that I didn't pursue a long term career there like a movie gallery. Gallery, I'm the CEO. Yeah, that would have been a real disappointment. It could.

Scott Anthony Barlow 6:15
Stephanie brought up though, I think is kind of fascinating, though. Because just before we started hitting recording now, and we were talking about, like, yeah, I've got kids that are 11, and 13, and nine and everything like that. And I, I actually really want them to have some terrible experiences in one way or another. Because otherwise, you don't really understand what it's like. And it said, and like, there's pretty great data out there. That makes a when you start to piece research from different places, you can make a pretty compelling argument that people stay in pretty good situations, because, as opposed to doing something that where they're really thriving in one way or another, because maybe they either haven't experienced that, yeah, really terrible situation, which does light a fire in some ways. So I think that just on its own is an interesting concept. I'm curious what you Well, I

Scott Young 7:09
mean, I feel like I'm such a weird person, not only just my personality, but even the trajectory I'm talking about. Yeah, like I can really, when I'm giving people career advice, it always has to be in a somewhat abstract way. Or it can't be like, well, based on my experience, because like, no one has the, you know, even when I was in university, and I'm like hanging out with people, I'm like, yeah, I'm gonna be like, I want to try to do this business thing was I was so weird, like, what are you doing? I think this idea of wanting to have a career of my own and wanting to have this kind of really highly autonomous career, I think forced a lot of thoughts about self improvement, generally, not even just productivity, but self improvement, generally, that I think a lot of people don't have, maybe until their 30s or something, just because when you are in high school or university, and especially if you're not struggling, like you're not really trying to Okay, well, I'm trying to get into Harvard, so I have to have perfect grades or something. There's often not that tension in the background of like, Well, why would I need to have a productivity system? Why would I need to like work on my habits and stuff. But for me, I remember at that time period, this sense of this would be really cool if I could do it, but no one around me thought that this was even like a real thing. So, you know, when I was talking to my parents, or something, for instance, who I like to start my own business, and my parents were public school teachers who were kind of very risk averse. And they just thought, Oh, this is gonna, this is like a really bad idea, you should you should get like a stable job or, or make sure you have a really good backup plan, I think was the way they thought about it. And I was very aware that, you know, this was a weird thing that like very few people were able to do. And so I kind of always approached the idea of having a successful career not as a, well, if I just put in a minimal amount of effort and show up, I will get through it. But this idea that I could work my ass off for years, and I could still fail. Like, it just it always had this sense that if I'm not taking, if I'm not giving my absolute best at this, then there's there's no chance. But even if I do put my best, there's still like a 75% chance that this is just a pipe dream, right? Like, and this was, you know, 15 years ago. So the references I had were, you know, nowadays, you know, there's lots of people who are doing stuff online making money from it. So I feel like the amount of reference examples of people who do it for a living are pretty broad. But back in 2000 2006 2005, when I was sort of first thinking about these ideas, there was no one doing it. And like the best people in the world doing it were like, maybe making like 100 grand a year or something. And this is like, you know, you know, the best people in the world now who are doing stuff online, you know, they have hundred million dollar businesses. It's not like it's a totally different ecosystem. And so I think that that early ambition and also this kind of confronting the idea that this was going to be Really hard and I would probably fail at it, even though I'm going to try my best. I think that really started this fire of like looking at self improvement looking at a lot of these kinds of topics that it wouldn't have until maybe I'm, you know, 27 and I'm like, okay, you know, I've been working this dead end job for a while I like to move forward. Like, that same experience happened to me, but it happened when I was 17. It didn't happen when I was, you know, 35 or something like that.

Scott Anthony Barlow 10:26
That's super interesting. I also, maybe not so coincidentally got that backup plan advice. I had my first business when I was in, I guess I was in college. Yeah, I guess like early, early college days. And so my roommates, it sounds like maybe you had a similar roommates thought, because I actually owned a franchise. And it was like a super non sexy business. It

Scott Young 10:46
wasn't online at all. It was like, Yeah, we did exterior painting. I remember being pitched by someone to join a college, President University. And I was very interested in because I was very interested in entrepreneurship. But I was already kind of into the business I was doing. And sadly, no, but I kinda want to do this online thing. And so I went into it, but I know what you're talking about. Yeah.

Scott Anthony Barlow 11:04
And it sounds so weird. Like that. stuff. Yeah, absolutely. Like, they're like, Where does he go in 5am? In the morning, and yeah, yeah. So anyhow, here's the question that I wanted to ask you earlier, though, where and how and what led up to the MIT project? Hmm,

Scott Young 11:25
yeah. Well, that's sort of my defining thing now that people know me for which is kind of sort of a little surreal to like, what happened there was I so I'll kind of kind of tie this into the story I was telling. So I'm writing this sort of online business, it's centrally around learning. At this point, like, the way I make money, is this a program that I sell, that's for study hacks for students. And so I have been spending a lot of time over the last few years really focusing in on this particular topic, like, what's the right way to study and I have my own kind of methodology, but I'm reading lots of other people. And, you know, Cal Newport is a friend of mine. And he writes about this, and I have some other friends that are also in this kind of student advice, learning advice, kind of space. And I had finished up a degree in business. And I'd gone into business with this sort of like, well, I want to be an entrepreneur. So I should go to business school, which by the way, I don't really recommend maybe do a business minor, like maybe take like an accounting class or a finance class, but most of business school is how to be a middle level manager in a big company, like there's an even the entrepreneurship advice they do give you as kind of garbage like I you know, I just feel like a lot of it is just Alright, this isn't really, you know, this isn't really what you need to do to do the kind of thing I wanted to do. And I had been really interested in programming, when I was a kid, I was originally got inspired to do this kind of entrepreneurship thing from people who are doing software solopreneur business. So because it's kind of like, when like freeware was a model or, you know, this kind of thing that early, you know, software providers, that was sort of my how I was kind of my gateway into this. And so I was interested in computer programming, I'd done some programming in high school, I'd done some programming classes in university. And when I was graduating, I was sort of like, Ah, man, that's what I should have studied, I should have done like a business minor and study computer science and learn programming, which is an actually useful skill. And I can actually do stuff with it make things which was sort of my whole aspiration. And I had been kind of sort of toying with the idea of like, well, maybe I could go back and get a computer science degree as a mature student, it didn't seem super appealing at the time, it was kind of like, wow, it's going to be at least a couple years, even as a mature student to get a degree in computer science. And, and it just seemed kind of, I don't know, you know, like, I was used to it, I was used to the university experience, I didn't really need to, you know, I don't need to go to more like fresh freshmen parties, I didn't need to go, I didn't need to do that stuff, I'd have that experience already. And so I was kind of doesn't seem super appealing. And at the time, I kind of came across, I don't remember how MIT posts some of their classes online for free. So they have these MIT OpenCourseWare classes. And I remember doing ones for I think it was for algorithms maybe and I just watched the lectures, I didn't do that much of it. And it was kind of like, oh, wow, these are like really good classes. And I'm looking through the catalog. And I'm like, Oh, you know, there's actually quite a bit here. And so I don't know where this idea came from. But I thought, what if you just tried to? What if you tried to just do all the final exams from a degree? I don't know something about that just sounded like, Okay, this is it's complicating this sort of goal I've had for a long time where I want to learn computer science and want to get better at programming. It's certainly related to this kind of core topic of my blog, which is learning so it would be kind of an interesting project. And then also, I was, you know, I had been doing a lot of studying stuff I was I felt fairly confident in my kind of studying and learning ability. So I thought, just this idea of like, what if you do it on an accelerated timetable, and just I don't know where this idea came in of doing anything a year. I don't know why that thing stuck out for me. But it just like when I said it to myself, like that would be really cool. Like, that would be really cool if you could do that. And suddenly this kind of like, going back to school and doing it became kind of this could be a really cool project. And as I talked about in the book, I had kind of had some exposure to Benny Lewis in the language learning space. And he had had this kind of challenge blogging approach where he like, took on challenges. And they were often these time constraints, and he would be talking about them while he was doing and I thought, Oh, this is just super compelling. Like, it was so exciting to watch as opposed to just someone pontificating about this is how you should study. It's like, Okay, look at me, this is how you do it. And another person who was really influential, there was Josh Kaufman, who had his personal MBA, which was sort of like a similar idea, kind of like, his wasn't as quite as like explicitly modeling off of a formal curriculum, but it was kind of like, how can you get the knowledge of an MBA just through self study? So I think these were sort of interesting ideas. I know, Steve pavlina, had done a thing where he talked about after the fact doing a double major in Mathematics and Computer Science at an actual University over three semesters. And that was another thing that I really like just the, you know, the productivity challenge of that, like, how do you organize your time, so you could actually do this? And so this really excited me, and it was very interesting. And I did, I think, a test class over the kind of timeframe I need to and I mean, it wasn't, I don't want to, like claim that I'm getting all a pluses on these exams, but it was like, No, no, I could learn it enough that I could pass it in, like MIT exams are super difficult. They're not like memorizing trivia there. You have to solve like problems you've never seen before. So they really do test you. And so I kind of got this idea. And I had all this free time now, after I'd done, you know, I've been running my business while going to university. So it seemed like very, okay, well, I'll just do another year of this. And, and so this this project is MIT challenge was born. And it's had a really, surprisingly weird popularity and longevity. And people keep talking about it now. And so it's, it's something that I definitely really liked doing, it was really enjoyable. I think the kind of this approach to self education is, it's so different than, you know, going to school just in the same way that running your own business is different from working a job, you know, like, You're, you're just kind of free, you can kind of learn what you want to learn and do it at the pace you want to go. And I just I found it to be a really intellectually stimulating and fascinating year. And the kind of side effect was that is that it kind of put me on the map as just being some random student who writes about learning. I was like, Oh, yeah, you're the guy who did this. And then all of a sudden, that just kind of took my little business and turned it into a bigger business. And, you know, really set me down this kind of path of, okay, you're the guy who does these weird projects, and, and that kind of thing.

Scott Anthony Barlow 17:50
So I'm curious, in a bit of this I got from the book, however, after going through that experience, well, at that point in time, what did you feel like your biggest takeaways, or the surprising things that you learned out of that experience? Well,

Scott Young 18:09
I think the big thing I took away from it was just a really expanded sense of what I am capable of learning all on my own without having a lot of, you know, formal structure around that. And so I had certainly been a kind of a curious person. And I tried to learn things on my own, but it was sort of restricted the kind of normal things people do, like you'd get a book and you'd read it or something like that. Whereas this was a fundamentally different kind of thing. Because it's, you know, I'm working through math problems. And I'm doing exams, and I'm doing programming assignments. And they are often quite complicated and difficult, like one of the classes was you had to build a CPU on a simulator by like, connecting the wires and stuff like it was, you know, not the kind of stuff that you just like Sunday reading, you just pick up a book, and you just kind of flipped through it, they were very mentally challenging and difficult. But by working through this kind of self made structure, I just had this expanded sense of possibility of, oh, wow, you could do this for anything, you could learn whatever you want to learn. You don't have to go to school, you could, you know, and I've done it since with things that are less academic, like I've done it with languages and drawing pictures and things like this. And, and so the feeling I had was just that there was a much larger terrain, you could say, of learnable acquirable skills that not to say that, you know, school is bad, I, you know, even MIT challenge was based on stuff from school. So it's a very kind of hybrid project, but that there's just way more flexibility and freedom than I think people are, are aware of. And I think also just the fact that, you know, people don't do these things, unless they're given some kind of example, like I gave some of the examples that I had, like Steve pavlina doing this and Josh Kaufman and Benny Lewis, but I think unless you're given some concrete example of In your head of like, this is possible, this is something you can do, very few people are going to be the Pioneer to try something out the first time. And so this experience to me also taught me how important reference examples are in doing it, because certainly not i'm not making the claim that everyone can do the MIT challenge and do it in under a year. I think it's, it's very difficult. And I think it does require certain amounts of talent and skill. But I think just how many people that's not even a possibility that they were considering, like, it's not even possible in their head that, you know, that wasn't an option on the list of things that I could do with, you know, my post graduation year. This is not even something that's on someone's list. And so I think that's been a real kind of guiding force of what I try to do as my work is try to give people an expanded reference set of options, because I feel like most of the great things that have come from my life have come from weirdly stumbling upon options that I didn't know are available, like, yeah, I didn't know you could do that. And, and, and that's all the great things in my life have come from that. So I've tried to do my best to give some of that back and show other people some of these options, you know, they're hard, they're difficult. And I'm not saying it's an easy thing to do. But just knowing it's out there, I think it makes a big difference

Scott Anthony Barlow 21:14
can completely identify with that we we call that hole? Well, we look at it as a barrier in many different ways, especially when we're talking about things like career change, or getting into meaningful work or achieving something that's not normal, which is Yeah, in many cases, like most people don't have, most people don't have work that they actually like in any way or have the right set of challenges or whatever else. But we call that idea of not understanding that something else is available to you out there the exposure problem. And if people don't have exposure, as you just alluded to like it in some ways, it just completely takes it away, it doesn't, it becomes or feels impossible, even if you have an inkling that you might want that whatever that is,

Scott Young 22:01
well, an analogy I can kind of draw is with travel, because I remember kind of my first steps of traveling in different places. And now I've traveled quite a few different places. And, you know, even done some immersive projects and stuff. There's a sort of an expansion and how big the world is when you do some of these things. And so for a lot of people, you know, and this isn't any insult or slight on people who haven't traveled that much. But if you have mostly spent time in your hometown, or maybe you've explored a little bit in your home country, there's a real kind of restrictive sense of like, well, anything that I'm going to experience has to be kind of here it has to kind of be at home. And I think if you've done a little bit of travel on your own, if you do, you know, like a gap here and do some solo travel, you suddenly become exposed to the idea of, Oh, I could go to lots of places I could maybe even live in lots of places. And all of a sudden, instead of just Well, I grew up in you know, Pittsburgh, so I have to live in Pittsburgh, my whole life, or I, you have this sense of well, I could do that. But I could also live in these other places. And so I think in a more abstract way, I think that's the same thing with learning. And that there is not only a sense of not knowing these options exist, but then there's also a sense of not feeling one has the efficacy to go there. Like, you know, there's the kind of person who thinks they can go to Tokyo and just live their whole life in Japan is the kind of person who thinks that would be a nightmare, I'd never be able to do that. And so similarly, I think there's people who think about like, Oh, I could become a computer programmer, or an accountant or a manager or an entrepreneur or an artist or something like this. And I could make a go of it, versus the person who's like, Oh, I if I tried that it would be a total failure. And so I think there's this combination of knowing that options exist and feeling like you have the competence to attempt them, I think are they're so important for this, this expansive set of what's possible for your life

Scott Anthony Barlow 23:52
do. So I have, I've got lots of questions. Once the, something that occurs to me is this idea that you are talking about as it relates to, you know, this expansiveness and this sort of progression that can happen, like you threw out the example of like, I don't know if I could do that. I don't know if I could live in Tokyo, you know, and there might be a variety of reasons behind that. But I'll take I'll say, I'll take a recent personal example. So my wife, this sounds crazy, but we're kind of you know, crazy people as it turns out, so she ever since she was a little kid, sounds super weird, has wanted, like this big dining room table. Where that's Have you ever heard of a live edge table?

Scott Young 24:36
Yeah, yeah, no, I know. Okay.

Scott Anthony Barlow 24:38
Well, I didn't know what this was at all. At the time, way back when where it's, you know, literally in the shape of the tree, you just like take off mark, and you can still see the edge and everything like that. So if that's something that she's had a desire for, as crazy as it sounds, since she was, I don't know, like a teenager or whatever. So we've been talking about this for years and at some point, we decided Okay, we're gonna go do this. Well, we started looking at them realized, oh my goodness, these things cost like 1015 grand. Okay. Yeah. All right. Well, that's more expensive than I thought it was. Okay, yeah. Do we want to drop?

Unknown Speaker 25:10
Yeah, she's one of those for a long time,

Scott Anthony Barlow 25:12
like, do we want to drop 10 or 15 grand on it. And so then I started thinking about like, well, what could be alternative options, and then realized that, you know, maybe, maybe it could be an option to make one.

Scott Young 25:25
And I had this story, talking to my grandfather. And my grandfather was born in 1919. He's passed away now. But he was telling you this story about how he built his house. And he had this house when him and my grandmother was still alive. And it was a two story house, and, you know, big, beautiful houses kind of thing. And he's telling me one day is like, Oh, yeah, I made, I just made the house. And I was like, Oh, you know, that's kind of impressive that you just decided to make your own house. And this is, this is what he told me about it, which I just thought was like, it's not so much this piece of advice, but just the attitude that is contained in this. And he's like, yeah, the only thing I didn't know how to do is how to pour the foundation. So I just walked around, and I saw some people doing it, and I watched them do it. And then I'm like, Okay, I'm gonna go do it now. And so this, to me, the idea that, like, you're just gonna walk onto a construction site be like, Alright, what are you guys doing with this? pouring this concrete foundation? All right, that's not too bad. I'll do that. And then I'll come back and build my own house. That's an attitude that I feel like, well, it was certainly struck me as weird at the time when I heard it, but like, how many people are like that? You know, and I'm not even just talking about handy things, but just things in general are just sort of like, Oh, yeah, okay, well, how hard can it be? I'm gonna go figure it out. And I so I think this kind of, could you build your own houses, that kind of thing? Like, Oh, no, there's no way I could build my own house. Like, you need to have professionals that do this all the time. And admittedly, building codes have probably made it more complicated to build a house, they have evolved as attorneys already, or whenever he built that house. But I think the point I'm just sort of making is that I think that there's this kind of, I can go out and learn that I can go out and do that. That is a background belief, that is really valuable to cultivate. And I don't know how you can cultivate it other than just by having lots of positive reference examples of you doing it. But there's a sort of a bootstrapping thing here that if this is a quality, you'd like to have yourself, you'd like you'd like to be the kind of person who's like, yeah, I could go build my own house and just go figure it out. You kind of need to be engaged in these sorts of learning projects generally. So when I think about ultra learning, which is the sort of topic of my book, I kind of frame it in that way as being its own skill, because I think it's so dependent on this sort of, do I believe that I can learn that? And do I have this kind of sense of self efficacy? And so I think labeling in that way is often very helpful. Because sometimes we unconsciously feel like, well, there's these things I can do. But there's those things I can't do. And so I think trying to abstract it as No, I'm the kind of person who can go out and learn whatever I want to learn whether or not it's hard work or not, that's not the point. But just having that as his background. Well, yeah, of course, I can do that, if I wanted to is a is a really powerful tool, because it helps you get unstuck from the situation helps you get unstuck from the like, Okay, well, the only way that I could do this is that I have to drop 15 grand on this table, or just give up the idea altogether, that there is this third option. And similarly, like, while you know, I'm already so invested in this current career, there's no way I could become a programmer. Now, I'm no good with computers, you know, the people get these sort of mental cages for themselves of their own sort of beliefs about their self efficacy. And I think it makes sense to invest in these sort of invest in these projects that build out your skills, build out your sense of self efficacy, not just for the skills themselves, but so that you have this background belief of Oh, yeah, I could go out and do that, you know. And I think that just makes your life so much richer and fuller than if you if you live in this narrow little bar.

Scott Anthony Barlow 28:54
So tell me a little bit more about that. I love that idea in that concept. But for everyone that's listening, when you say, investing in these projects, so that you can build out, essentially a different idea of yourself. I think that's well worth doing. But tell me more about what you mean by that. Or give me some other examples of what that could look like.

Scott Young 29:17
Well, I can talk about my own case. So I sort of already spoke about after doing the MIT challenge. And I mean, the MIT challenge had this kind of like, that would be really cool. But like, maybe I won't be able to do it kind of thing in the back of my head. Like, maybe I could do it, but it's gonna be really hard. But then after doing it, my kind of feeling wasn't so much about the speed, the speed kind of doing it in a year is the thing that most people focus on. But for me, the always the more important aspect of it was just, if I wanted to learn, let's say, computer science, I could do it. You know, whether I did it over a year is kind of immaterial, it's more that you'd be able to go out and do that kind of thing. And so the other project I did after that was this year without English project where I went with a friend that we went to four different countries, Spain. Brazil, China and South Korea to learn Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese and Korean. And the sort of crux of that project was that we weren't going to speak English when we were there. I mean, we did have some minor exceptions, especially in the latter legs in Asia, but for the most part, we were able to stick with it. And I would say that we were able to get to a level where, you know, having kind of simple conversations wasn't a problem. And I would say in Spain, it was quite comfortable living there after, after three months. And so that became this new reference point for me of, oh, if you want to learn a language, you can just go do it. Like, like this sort of, oh, man, I'd really like to learn French, but all Wow, it's so hard. And it's going to take forever to learn in this kind of like thing that a lot of people maybe would have about it was just for me, like, yeah, you know, you could spend, you know, a few months to get to like a nice basic level where you could, you know, converse with people, and I've done stuff like that since so I learned I had a project this year, my wife is from North Macedonia. And she speaks Macedonian, although her English is very fluent. And, you know, I would like you know, I'd like to learn Macedonian. And so I did a little project for that over a month. And I've had other times where, you know, when I'm traveling to a new country, it's like, well, it would be nice to learn some, like basics of the language when you're going to that country, which would have seemed like a real Oh, this is futile, like, what's the point of even learning anything with this just because I'm never going to be able to like speak Japanese or German or something, but like, Okay, well, I'll learn a little bit, then I can just have this kind of like shopkeeper kind of like interactions without problem or ask for directions and stuff. And so these are quite of specific things. Like, I feel like the MIT challenge gave me this kind of this sense of efficacy around some kinds of academic subjects, particularly at this kind of like undergraduate level, or technical subjects, math and things like that. And this language project gave me this kind of expanded sense of competency with travel and languages and integrating in and other cultures, and even just things like, if I go to somewhere new, and I don't speak the language, like even things like would I be able to make friends? Or would I be able to have, you know, a life there were just things that I felt like this greater expanded sense of competency, and I've done some other projects since and so I feel like each of these projects that I did, it wasn't just that I learned computer science. It wasn't just that I learned Spanish, let's say, but it was more kind of this reference set of skills that now feel like, Okay, if I put in the work, I could, I could do that, I feel pretty confident about it. And there's this weird motivational sort of paradox. So a lot of motivational theories are like what are called expectancy value theories, where like, your sense of motivation depends both on how much value you attach to it, and what your expectation is that you'll be able to be able to reach it. And so you have this kind of bootstrapping problem where if you have low expectancy, you also have low motivation. But the low motivation makes it harder to achieve it. And then you get this kind of paradox where you either get really motivated, but then you get some setbacks, and the motivation drops. And it's really hard to continue. And so I think the more you can view, this lifelong learning project of expanding skills and competencies and building this bootstrap reference set of, Oh, I can do that I can do that. I can do that. And certainly talent, certainly, just these kinds of innate abilities do play a role. But I think, you know, again, I'm the same person I was, you know, back when I was doing those things, if anything, I'm probably a little duller than I was when I was in my early 20s. But just I have these beliefs from having this kind of reference. So if I were to go out and do it, I know exactly how to do it. And I would have that self efficacy. And so I think people really underrate that process they focus a little bit too much on is it really worth it to learn this one thing, rather than seeing this as a lifelong project of expanding this range of things that you can do in this expanding this range of things where you feel comfortable, and where you feel like you can make progress.

Scott Anthony Barlow 33:50
I love that, and I appreciate you pointing it out. And it also is a good kicking off point, if I don't know my coffee over here, that it makes me makes me want to take all of these concepts that we've talked about, and then make them really tangible. And you know, the book that you wrote is called ultra learning. And then the concept behind the entire book is this idea of ultra learning. But let's let's see if we could take this and make it like really tangible here for just Just a second. So let me throw something at you. Let's take this idea. And let's call it a project of career change. Specifically, let's get really specific here. career change to meaningful work that pays very well. So we'll take that idea, that project and let's say Okay, so what take us through how you think about ultra learning as a as a project, like what was what is the first way to think about this or first thing to do or take me through some of the steps that people can actually begin using as they're thinking about this, this?

Scott Young 34:54
So where I always start is with this and I've divided the book into these nine principles and I call them principles as opposed to steps because they're not like one after the other, although the first one does kind of logically come first. And the last one kind of does logically come at the end. But the others are just sort of a, they're not in any particular order. But the principle that I start with is meta learning. And if you're not used to that kind of grammatical assertion, you say meta for something, it means it's about itself. So meta learning is kind of learning how to learn or learning about learning. And why I think this is so important, and why it's often deficient is that we spend our entire lives going through kind of formal learning environments. So you go to a classroom, and you don't really have to worry about meta learning, because the teacher is there to tell you what to learn. They have figured out the subject, they figured out how it breaks down, and they figured out this is the right way to teach it. And so now you just do what you're told, follow along. And I mean, that works great in a school environment. And frequently, I rely on that I trust that the teacher is understood that you need to learn this before that this is the proper sequencing. So I'm definitely not trying to disparage the formal education environment in this way. But I think when you only have experience with these kinds of environments, it leads to a certain learn helplessness, because when you're confronting your own situation, you have no metal learning ability, you have no sense of Hmm, this would be how I would figure out the right way to learn this thing, especially if there's no class for it. So in a career transition project, this is often the situation that you're in, is that well, the way that people typically got into the career may involve many, many years of kind of home skill and practice, and, and they, you know, may have certain educational backgrounds that you lack or this kind of thing, too. And so it can often seem kind of insurmountable to do a career change, you can just sort of seem like, Well, you know, I'm too old I that the time to do that was when I was 21. And like that my opportunities done now. But I think that if you can invest in this process of metal learning, you can often figure out, Okay, what would be the way that I would acquire this skill doesn't mean that you get out of doing the work, it's still a lot of work. But it turns it from a this is impossible to this is what would have to be done. And I think even if this is what would have to be done, it's a lot of work, making that concrete and explicit really changes what's in front of you. And so one of the key kind of techniques I talked about in the book is this expert interview method where you find people who have already learned what you want to learn. And you kind of ask them what they did. So what did they go through to learn that. And you can do this for a very explicit learning project. So if you're trying to learn programming, for instance, you can find someone who has recently learned programming maybe in the last few years, you don't want to find people that are too far ahead of you. Like, you don't want to be talking to a guy who learned programming 25 years ago, because it's totally changed. Like, there's different circumstances, this kind of thing. But if you can find people that have learned, you know, relatively recently, they say, Oh, yeah, I use this book, or I use this course, I joined this hacking boot camp or this kind of thing. And if you do enough of these, you start to like, kind of pick up the trends of not just sort of how they learned it, but also what they learned. So I started with this, and I started with that. And then I did this for a while, and then I moved to this. And I think this can be very useful for kind of very explicit learning goals. But it can also be useful when you don't know what the person learned. So if you're looking at someone who's a successful entrepreneur, it can be kind of mysterious, what are the things that they actually got good at to be successful, and entrepreneur, all you know is that they aren't a successful entrepreneur, you don't really know anything else about them. And so in this case, you can kind of walk them through their history with it. And again, it requires some inference, but you're able to slowly piece together. Oh, so they started doing this. And then that led to this to this, like, in some ways, the me talking about my story of getting involved in this, you know, you can see there sort of phases of like, well, I'm writing about student issues while I'm a student, and then I'm doing this and this. And so if you were to just kind of encounter me today, and it was sort of like, Well, how do I get doing what you're doing? It may be kind of baffling. But if I kind of walk you through history, maybe you're not gonna do the same thing. But you're like, Well, you know, I have this background in x. And maybe I could write about that. And then that could lead to a blog. So this is sort of how you pieces together. And so the goal of this meta learning phase is that you want to draw a map, you want to have some map of where you're trying to go and what are the kind of main pathways What are going to be the main obstacles, what are going to be the sort of sequences that you're going to have to follow. And this is a really underrated phase. And it can often take quite a bit of time, if you're planning a big career change, it might take you months to, to draw this map and figure out okay, well, if I'm going to transition from you know, doing this tails desk job to being a, let's say, I want to be a freelance programmer who lives on a beach or something like that, like there's going to be many steps to being successful at that I don't want to I don't want to make it seem like it's easy, but at the same time, if you are able to map it out, you can say to yourself, okay, this would be something that would take me between two to four years to like really work out or maybe like, you know, 18 months if I'm really aggressive, working on it full time and then I can get kind of get my foothold in and start working up once you have that in front of you. It's a A lot easier to commit to it because the vision is concrete. And so I think this metal learning skill really is that the sort of at the very initial stage of any project like this is that you need to know what's required, you need to know the difficulty that's going to be involved as well, because sometimes there's a vagueness also promotes a kind of wishful thinking too, I find that, you know, there's a sort of idea of, well, if I don't really know how to do it, maybe it's really, really easy or something like this. And I think that's a really bad approach to take to, you know, the ultra learning kind of false have is very, like hard nosed, in the sense that, it's always really looking at it square on and being like, this is gonna be really difficult, it's gonna be a lot of work, this is gonna be something that's hard to do. But if I can make it really explicit, then maybe I can motivate myself to do all that hard work and get the benefit that I want.

Scott Anthony Barlow 40:45
So I love that too, especially the idea of making it explicit, because it totally tailors back to to what we were talking about in terms of exposure and making it more possible for lack of a better phrase. So we've got lots of people that are that are listening to this right in this moment. And maybe they've gone through and they have begun to identify what it is going to take, or what final advice would you give them from there? Yeah, so

Scott Young 41:12
there's lots of again, I got another eight principles that I could have gone through if we had more time. But the the main piece of advice I give and if I have to pick just one that I settled on is this idea of directness, which we'll talk about. And this is kind of funny, because our actual experiences of learning in school are often very indirect. So it kind of is misleading in terms of what is the best way to learn is in some ways school is a counter example. That it's that's actually not the way to do learning most of the time. And so this idea of directness is that there's ample research showing that we're bad at transferring skills when the contexts differ. So if you learn something from a book, but when you're actually using it in involves, you know, working with your hands, for instance, there's often the case that you could have learned it perfectly from the book, but only be able to perform like it very minimally with your hands. And so the way to think about this is, if I need to learn a skill, I need to be paying very close attention to where does the skill need to be performed, what is actually involved the skill, and have practice that hues to that as close as possible. So if I know that I want to be a programmer, the light bulb should go in your head right now is that I got to do a lot of programming, right? Like, that's how I'm going to get good at programming, if I need to do a lot of writing than whatever I'm doing to learn needs to involve a lot of writing. And there's little optimizations, and there's drills, and I don't want to like oversimplify too much by saying this. But the kind of mistake or the detour people take is, oh, I need to learn this, let's do this activity that has nothing to do with what I'm actually going to be doing there. But it's sort of topically related. So my favorite criticism of this is this is how a lot of people learn languages, like I want to learn French, but what am I actually doing when I'm using French talking to someone, right? Usually, that's usually why people want to learn a language. So what am I going to do, I'm going to play on my phone for six months. Like, it's this kind of insanity that people get themselves into, where they realize that the talking to someone, well, that's terrifying and hard. So I'm going to go do this other thing instead. And I really, really discourage people from doing that. Because yes, it is hard in the moment to face up to do the real thing. But it's way, way, way better than doing some fake make work thing that doesn't actually point you towards your goal. And again, it relates to this idea of self efficacy that we were talking about before, that if you do something that is a bad plan, it's not going to work. And you're not like really admitting that this is a bad plan, that's not going to work. And then you fail at it, what lesson you draw from it. Well, some people draw Well, maybe that's a bad plan. And the problem is with me, but usually the less people draws, I'm not good at this, I can't do it. And all of a sudden there's a wall erected that that thing that you were struggling with, it's because you aren't good at it. And you draw this barrier when really, maybe the method was bad. And so I think that for from my big piece of advice for people to take, if there's only one thing, especially if you're planning a career change, or something practical, is to really really investigate what is the exact context and use case for the skill that I want? And then how can I simulate that as close as possible, even if it means that it's kind of difficult and frustrating and hard. If I can keep that mental picture in my head of this is how I'm using it in the real world. In the real situation, you're much less likely to kind of trick yourself into doing all these things that take months and months and months and feel like you're learning but really are accomplishing nothing. And so there's lots of other little principles in the book, but that's the big one that I think is you know, don't get this one wrong. Get the other ones wrong. I mean, they can be fixed but this one is like your your shot yourself

Scott Anthony Barlow 44:48
in the foot before he started the race. And I would make the argument to that it may be easier in the long run. But I'd say it's a lot harder in the long run. If you're doing all of that other work. You know the example of playing on your phone In the first six months, instead of actually using the language, or if you want to make a career change, like actually doing the stuff that's going to carry you there in one way or another, as opposed to spending another three years in something that

Scott Young 45:12
I think it makes sense to have a good abstract picture of what is the right way to learn things in general. Uh, you know, obviously, this is a bit of a plug for my book. But I think, you know, you don't need to have a mastery of it, you don't need to be like as cognitive science professor, but if you have a basic sense of this is roughly how the mind works. This is roughly how memory works is roughly how skill acquisition works in a way that you're not going to be tricked by like implausible bs stuff. Like, you're not going to be like one of these people that like, I'm just going to listen to, you know, audio recordings while I sleep. And I'll just pick it up subliminally like, you'll know that that's bullshit, and you're not going to do it. If you're able to kind of have a general picture of this is how learning works in the abstract, and he doesn't give you a specific roadmap, you still need to do the metal learning, but I think it disabuse you of some like, like really obvious ways that aren't aren't going to work. Like that's not going to get you there. And I think that if you can kind of keep that sort of rough outline, then you're much more likely to do something that even if you didn't start exactly on the best plan through trial and error and talking to people, so if you'll gravitate towards something that works, but if you don't have any picture, then it's a lot easier to be tricked by Yeah, just promises that Oh, if you do this and this and this, then it'll work and it's like, Okay, well, that's probably not gonna work. Yeah.

Scott Anthony Barlow 46:28
Scott, I so appreciate you taking the time making the time coming and sharing this. And for people who want to know more about you or people who want to go pick up ultra learning the book, where can Where can they do that? Well, first of all, I

Scott Young 46:41
recommend going to my website at Scott h young, calm that's SEO TT h while u n g calm and I have now over 1400 free articles there. So this isn't just to you know, buy my stuff pitch. It's there's lots and lots of free stuff on learning on career change on a lot of these topics we've talked about. And if you want to get the book, it's available Amazon, Barnes and Noble just look up ultra learning, also audible so if you're not tired of listening to my voice, I also narrate it so you can listen to the book as well.

Scott Anthony Barlow 47:11
Very cool. Hey, I really appreciate it.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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