I’ve long been a Scott Young fan from my early days of reading blogs (miss you, Google Reader), so I was thrilled to get the chance to interview him about his new book Ultralearning.

As a relentless consumer of information and a sometimes autodidact, I’ve found Scott’s blog to be very insightful in terms of approaching new projects and learning skills like coaching and coding without going through a formal educational process.

With the current ubiquity of information – including entire college curriculums, endless video interviews with world-class experts, and entire industries of online courses – we should be able to learn just about anything we want.

However, as anyone who has either attempted to learn a new skill or, God forbid, teach someone else a skill has experienced, learning is really, really hard.

How can we actually transfer what we learn from theoretical lectures and books to real-life application? How can we practice skills in a way that makes us better at the skill itself – not just at random drills?

Check out the full conversation with Scott to learn:

  • Why listening to lectures, watching videos and reading books doesn’t tend to translate into applicable learning in most areas – and what to do instead so that you can actually transfer the things you learn into real-life practice
  • How to find the right balance between practicing the skill that you’re learning and doing drills – since some drills don’t translate effectively but only practicing the full skill can prevent you from improving on weaknesses
  • What really separates those who are willing to self-educate from those who aren’t – and why the common barriers (“I’m not smart enough,” “I’m not talented enough,” etc.) aren’t accurate

Check out the episode at the links below. If you enjoyed the episode, the best way to support the show is to share with your friends, so send them a link.

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Show Notes:

  • [1:50] Scott seems to understand that learning is most successful in an environment of doing and not in one of reading, lecture attendance, and video watching. However, he’s published a book about learning – so what exactly is its purpose and why did he choose to write it?
  • [4:21] There’s a lot more to learning than simply practicing, as certain skills seem to involve endless amounts of practice while others have more apparent, speedy transfer. Learning becomes more difficult when the type of practice performed deviates from how the skill is used in a real-life setting. Scott gives some examples of when these transfer problems arise and how transfer problems can arise even in learning about theoretical ideas.
  • [8:46] Directness and actual application are significant in order to learn all skills, but the order in which they’re performed matters. A learning strategy is likely transferring effectively when exposure to a skill is direct prior to performing any sort of drill and, once drills are introduced, it becomes important to return back to those situations of direct exposure regularly.
  • [13:01] Skills can be built up individually while lacking functionality outside of largely abstract situations, meaning that drills must be specific and relative to real performance of the skill. Feedback on those drills (and, generally, on performance of the skill being learned) shows to be a nonessential piece of the learning process.
  • [20:12] We can get knowledge into our heads, but accessing a learned skill isn’t done by pulling out a ‘saved’ memory from the brain and feedback is self-generated through realization of what is not able to be recalled – that aspect of retrieval is vital to performance of any skill, making the sophistication of recall more effective than repeated exposure.
  • [24:38] Studies may not be representative of all populations since skills vary so greatly in context – amount of acquired knowledge and ease of retrieval positively correlate, and sample sizes tend to be small. Giving learners opportunities to apply what they’ve learned can be a step toward bridging the gap in education where people review and ‘understand’ concepts but cannot seem to make any real change behaviorally.
  • [25:54] Experience is one of the many reasons experts perform better than novices at almost any skill – an expert’s experience in a particular skill allows them to chunk things together and to see prior patterns, obvious mistakes, and recognition of solutions to problems more readily than a novice, who likely attempts to piece together a multitude of individual parts of a larger concept.
  • [33:13] Learning a skill in order to solve problems rather than to simply know the information and to have it ‘stored’ can improve one’s ability to transfer. Autonomy is a necessity though: being able to apply a skill that you don’t really want to use is unlikely, no matter what super effective strategies or level of established intelligence or personality traits are present. Anyone can learn almost anything if they want to.
  • [43:04] Many people have negative experiences with learning and associate learning struggles with failure. Once you know how to put together a puzzle, it isn’t a puzzle anymore, but confidence and persistent engagement are keys to keep trying at that puzzle.
  • [53:10] Knowledge decay isn’t as serious as many believe because large ideas are retained – making a habit of performing physics problems or speaking in a particular language can help in maintaining those learned skills, but even more abstractly reminding yourself of formulas that exist can be helpful.
  • [57:38] Attitudes surrounding learning are the difference between either merely knowing about many concepts and drowning in self-doubt or having the confidence to succeed in complicated areas of work such as ultra learning. Can we make it prestigious to be a motivated self-educating person?
  • [1:04.35] Being able to copy someone else’s behavior or learn how someone else performs well at a particular skill by being able to watch and communicate with them about the subject can enhance and expedite the learning process. However, it’s possible that this is true in skills with more clearly defined ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs.’
  • [1:14.10] How to get Scott’s book if you want it. And you probably want it. And you probably also want to check out some more Scott content. So here’s how to get all of that.

Links and Resources Mentioned