Ultralearning Matters More After Graduation

I think there’s a tendency to view ultralearning, the deep, intense self-education characterized by the MIT Challenge, as something mostly useful to students. Students have to do a lot of learning, so therefore, they would benefit the most from being able to do it faster or more efficiently.

I actually think it’s the opposite. Ultralearning is most useful in the working world. It’s effectiveness in school is somewhat more muted.

Why Ultralearning Matters in Work

Professional success is largely a matter of having rare and valuable skills. The best programmers outearn and outperform the mediocre by a factor of ten or more. The best entrepreneurs earn billions while the more typical can’t even stay in business.

To have rare and valuable skills, you first need to learn them. This already means that those with a more effective learning approach will outcompete those who don’t.

But I believe this fact of life is further exaggerated by two current shifts in society.

The first is that company loyalty has gone down. The employee/employer relationship used to be a bond for life. Now, it’s commonly expected that an employee will work for a couple years and then move on, if greater opportunity exists elsewhere.

This well-documented trend means that employers are less willing to invest heavily in training their employees. After all, why invest heavily in someone who will up and leave for a better job as soon as they acquire the skills? This shifts the burden on career development away from the firm and onto the individual.

The second trend is that work itself has become increasingly intellectual and complex. The important, emerging career options are all cognitively demanding, complex jobs. Programmer, data scientist, researcher all benefit from sophisticated background knowledge. Heck, even in my relatively low-tech career as a writer, I’ve had to learn dozens of tools and software, and the core of my profession—writing text—is hardly a STEM subject.

The acceleration of these two trends means that being able to rapidly acquire new skills and knowledge is going to be increasingly advantageous in the future.

Why Ultralearning Matters Somewhat Less for School

Ultralearning isn’t simply learning faster. Instead it’s a philosophy based on aggressive learning procedures (such as not speaking any English to learn a new language) and creative usage of resources to get at an end goal faster (such as watching video lectures at 1.5x the speed to save time).

School mutes the benefits of the ultralearning approach in a few ways.

First, schools already have well-organized curricula. It’s rare that you’re forced to assemble a learning path completely on your own. Instead, one has often been meticulously prepared for you.

This well-organized structure can be played around with, but rarely does it make sense to make significant alterations. Even in situations where we know that school curricula underperform (such as language classes, where people can take years of study and not be confident speaking), the evaluation structure of the class typically doesn’t benefit students who try a radically non-conformist approach.

This means the hacker mindset of ultralearning mostly comes into play as a supplement, rather than a replacement, to the traditional offering. You might ultralearn the programming you feel you’re not getting in your computer science education, for instance.

Second, the main function of school is learning. Even when teaching approaches miss the mark a bit, they are still aimed at the same target.

Professional life, in contrast, is not about learning. It’s about performance. Since learning very often requires doing things that are harder than you can perform well at, this puts the two goals in contrast.

As an analogy, schools may teach you to shoot a little left of the bulls-eye, but professional life very often coaches you to hit a completely different target.

This latter difference means that, while applying ultralearning to a school environment is still a useful approach, it’s unlikely you’ll see order-of-magnitude differences. However, in real-world skills, such differences often are possible simply because the default approach in many areas is so poorly optimized.

Ultralearning for Real Life

In addition to the self-education skills I’m associating with ultralearning—creative usage of materials, aggressive constraints to provoke learning, ambitious attempts to break through obstacles—ultralearning is a way of looking at the world.

That way of viewing the world sees building knowledge and skills, not as something you do to get a passing grade, but as assets you can collect to do the things you really care about. Whether that’s travel to another country without needing to rely on your mother tongue, cover a subject you wanted to study in your spare time or quickly learn skills that will advance your career.

  • Christian Jespersen

    I very much agree with this view. And for some reason, being better to learn, is not part of the curriculum. It’s what you learn, not how you learn that is in focus.

    Since our approach to learning changes the older we get, I think students of elementary, secondary and college, could benefit a lot, if learning how to learn was part of the thinking Barbara Oakley does.

    Do you have any idea on how to motivate university students, who already seem to be more focused on how busy they are, than learning to improve how they learn, and during so, freeing up time?

    I am thinking purely motivational ideas? What do think what be the right approach and what could convince them?

    P.s. Thanks for a great newsletter. You are doing a fantastic job.

    Christian Jespersen
    Captain at Studiebooster

  • Christian Jespersen

    I very much agree with this view. And for some reason, being better to learn, is not part of the curriculum. It’s what you learn, not how you learn that is in focus.

    Since our approach to learning changes the older we get, I think students of elementary, secondary and college, could benefit a lot, if learning how to learn was part of the thinking Barbara Oakley does.

    Do you have any idea on how to motivate university students, who already seem to be more focused on how busy they are, than learning to improve how they learn, and during so, freeing up time?

    I am thinking purely motivational ideas? What do think what be the right approach and what could convince them?

    P.s. Thanks for a great newsletter. You are doing a fantastic job.

    Christian Jespersen
    Captain at Studiebooster

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