Wetend to admire people who accomplish extraordinary intellectual feats, whether it be learning several languages or writing a complex piece of software.
But, according to Scott H Young — my recent guest on the Future Squared podcast — it turns out that we all can learn much more than what we think.
In his Wall Street Journal bestseller, Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate, he defines ‘ultralearning’ as being able to teach oneself hard skills in efficient ways.
Young and I talked about the nature of learning and why traditional learning methods impede rather than accelerate the learning process. We also delved into useful practices and pitfalls to avoid when trying to learn something new.
You can find the full conversation below but if you’d rather just get stuck into the lessons learned, then without further ado I bring you…
It might sound ridiculous but Young’s assertion that “we’ve never really been taught how to learn in school” is absolutely true. The old ways of learning are still largely based on remembering facts and regurgitating them on standardized tests.
Despite the 12-odd years we dedicate to learning random facts in high school, most of us are somewhat clueless once we’re out in the real world.
Young referenced a study which found that University Psychology students who studied basic psychology in high school did not perform significantly better than those that hadn’t.
He went on to reference Honours level Physics students who difficulties solving physics problems that are superficially different from the ones they were given in school, which echoes the ’remember and regurgitate’ thinking that plagues our education system today. It’s not that they’ve understood how to solve the problem in a transferable way — they’ve just remembered a very specific solution to a very specific problem.
According to German thinker Hermann Ebbinghaus, 75 percent of what we learn is forgotten in six days, if not retrieved. This underlines the importance of recalling information during the learning process.
Pro-tip: When you finish reading a chapter in a book. Write down, without looking, what you actually learned and remember. This will test how well you truly absorbed the knowledge presented, and will help you to better remember key information.
Young tell of practicing a presentation in front of his wife. After several runs, Young’s wife suggested that she had heard the speech so many times already that she could deliver it. But upon being prompted to give it a go by Young, she couldn’t.
The point is that we tend to think that we have already learned something even though we actually haven’t.
Young calls this the “illusion of explanatory depth.” This refers to a rather common assumption that learning is only about memory (reading, watching, listening).
For instance, we think we know how to draw a bike because we’ve seen bikes thousands of times. But many people who were given the task of drawing a bike usually fail immensely.
To successfully learn a speech, draw a bike, whatever the task at hand, a person should be able to recall information successfully. Therein lies the value of retrieval practice.
So how do ultralearners retrieve information? Young says that the best method is to use the knowledge directly.
For instance, when one is learning a language, the fastest way to learn is to use it in actual conversation. This way, acquiring the most commonly used words and practicing one’s grammar is more natural.
This is closely related to the importance of applying learned ideas skills to real-world projects. This can be in the form of a personal project, say, a podcast, a computer program, or even a short paragraph if you have just learned a new word or phrase.
Applying your learnings not only reinforces your newly-acquired knowledge but also improves your motivation and sense of achievement. When we accomplish a task, our brain produces dopamine which creates a sensation of pleasure. This keeps us motivated and elevates our mood.
Young also mentioned that teaching is another great way to learn. After all, we don’t know how well we understand an idea until we try to explain it to someone. As the Roman statesman and philosopher, Seneca, wisely said, “by teaching, we learn.”
Familiarity, like memory, can be deceptive. Many tend to confuse familiarity with learning. But Young says that without retrieval practice, you might end up forgetting it in no time.
For instance, one can fully understand a foreign language after getting immersed in it for some time. But this does not necessarily mean that one has already acquired the skills to hold a conversation.
Feedback is important to learning, but it can also backfire and hurt your motivation.
Still, Young suggests that rather than “dodging the punches” and avoiding feedback, we should learn mental framing. This requires a resilient state of mind and not letting feedback derail your learning. It requires what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset.
Young correctly asserts that most of our problems with feedback come from our emotional response to it rather than the nature of the feedback itself. Thus, learners should know how to objectively interpret all sorts of feedback and not let emotion get in the way of improvement.
There are no shortcuts to learning. It requires dedication and hard work.
Nonetheless, we can work on our methods and motivations.
Young concluded by saying that “the moments in your life when you feel most alive aren’t the moments sitting watching Netflix. They are the moments when you are doing something you thought wasn’t possible before.”
This is perhaps the biggest reason why anyone should learn. Learning should be enriching rather than dulling. In the end, it’s the fulfilment that comes with learning that makes it all worthwhile.
Steve Glaveski is the co-founder of Collective Campus, author of Time Rich, Employee to Entrepreneur and host of the Future Squared podcast. He’s a chronic autodidact, and he’s into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and do standup comedy.