How to ‘Ultralearn’

April 20, 2020

Companies are looking for higher levels of skill in their employees than ever before. That said, it’s a tall order for anyone to continue acquiring the skills and knowledge at a pace needed to be a leader in their industry. “People who have the most time constraints, those are the ones that really have to be efficient with figuring out what is the most effective way to learn this skill,” says Scott Young, leading expert on ‘ultralearning’—aggressive self-directed learning strategies.

Young is the author of Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career. He recently came on the HBR IdeaCast podcast where he discussed the principles of ultralearning.

Here’s his three steps to ultralearn a subject.

1. Do some foundational research

Since you’re teaching yourself, you might not know the subject well enough to know where to start. So the first step is simple: Google it.

“For skills that are popular like programming, languages, public speaking, MBA, business skills, there will be many, many resources,” Young says. At this point, you’re just trying to get a very basic grasp of the subject. Target resources that are aimed at laypeople. Save anything for later that seems useful but is too advanced for right now.

2. Interview someone who knows the subject

Once you have a basic grasp of your topic, the next step is to talk to someone about it. This person should be someone who’s knowledgeable enough so they can provide some guidance. The person doesn’t necessarily have to be a leader in their field. Often the best person to ask for help is someone who was in your shoes just a few years ago, so they have a clear memory of the inherent challenges of learning this subject.

During your conversation, the main question you want to get answered is, “If you were starting from scratch, how would you approach learning this?” This is also an opportunity to ask some questions that came up during your research. But remember to keep the questions learning centered; you’re asking them to help get you started, not tutor you.

3. Practice what you learn

After interviewing an expert, you should have an idea of what subtopics you want to hit and in what order. And you should follow that. But what will really accelerate your learning is the next component: practice.

“People tend to assume that when you learn a skill, that you’ll learn it in a very general way, that you’ll be able to flexibly use it in all sorts of situations, and that’s just not what psychologists and educational researchers find,” Young says. “The ultralearners that I met, the people who are very successful at learning combat this problem … by doing direct practice where they figure out where they want to use the skill—where is this actually going to make an impact with my lifewhere do I think I will be using this knowledgewhere will it come up—and then try to design practice scenarios that imitate this quite closely.”

If your goal is to learn French, try to have conversations with a friend who’s fluent. If you want to learn to code, try building an app. Even if it’s just a “lite” version of the sort of project you eventually want to do, the practice will accelerate your learning so that you reach your goals sooner.

By: HBR Ascend Staff

Copyright: Ascend Harvard Business Review; All rights reserved

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