Recently, I tried to introduce the idea of ultralearning: deep, aggressive self-education. Since I’ve been discussing it more frequently, I thought it would be useful to clarify more precisely what I mean by it.
To the casual reader this may seem pedantic, but I’m hoping for the more frequent reader of this blog this will help articulate, in my mind, what are the key distinctions between a whole host of related concepts I tend to throw about.
Some Things Ultralearning Isn’t
Part of the difficulty with this new concept is that I’ve spent a lot of time talking about related concepts: efficient studying, rapid learning, regular self-education, active learning, etc. While there’s certainly overlap with these concepts, I wouldn’t say they are interchangeable.
1. Ultralearning Isn’t Just Learning Faster
Rapid learning, or learning something over an usually short period of time (or, alternatively over a relatively few number of total studying hours), is something I’ve written about previously. Trying to pass linear algebra exam in ten days of learning  or learning to draw portraits proficiently  in a hundred hours are possible examples.
Ultralearning differs from this concept in two ways. First, I would say a key characteristic of ultralearning is that it must be highly self-directed. It’s possible to rapidly learn while following the careful guidance of a teacher or coach, but I wouldn’t call this an ultralearning effort. Second, an ultralearning project could aim for incredible depth and breadth, even if it was pursued over a longer period of time.
2. Ultralearning Isn’t Just Self-Education
Similarly, I wouldn’t say all self-education is ultralearning. In order to qualify, the approach used must be particularly aggressive, intensive and deliberate. Learning physics by grinding through hard problems in practice sessions is an ultralearning approach. Casually breezing through some books on physics probably isn’t.
I would actually argue most self-education isn’t ultralearning. This is simply because, as a recreational activity, most people prefer to learn casually, without a high degree of mental effort.
Side Note: By this measure, my current cognitive science learning projec t wouldn’t yet be ultralearning, despite my earlier classification. I’m hoping this will adjust as I’m able to more rigorously practice it, but I’m still exploring the best way to do that at the moment.
3. Ultralearning Isn’t Just Learning Effectively
Learning something in an effective way doesn’t mean you’re using ultralearning. I want to maintain that distinction because I feel the contours of what we know about effective learning (deliberate practice, active recall, spacing effect, etc.) are broad enough that they could plausibly host different competing strategies or styles which could be more effective for different people.
For instance, someone slowly learning programming by working their way through a guided programming curriculum and practice projects can certainly learn effectively, even though I wouldn’t describe their pursuit as ultralearning.
What Is Ultralearning?
In short, for some learning effort to fit the concept of ultralearning, I would argue it has to have the following characteristics:
- Highly self-directed. It is possible to use ultralearning within a formal curriculum. But what is distinctive about ultralearning projects is that the student is ultimately taking a very active role in choosing what to learn, what not to learn and how to do it.
- Aggressive learning tactics. Ultralearning is typified by tactics that dive straight into the hardest and most difficult part. Naturally, these tactics are mentally demanding and often uncomfortable, so many people who are choosing how to learn prefer a more casual approach.
In short, ultralearning is an uncommon strategy because it is hard. It is hard because it requires a lot more planning and self-motivation than less self-directed approaches. It it also hard because the learning approach itself is more mentally demanding than other alternatives.
Given ultralearning is difficult, why bother doing it? Why not use a different strategy that relies more on guided instruction or less strenuous learning tactics?
The short answer is that because I believe, if you can succeed in getting past the difficulties of ultralearning, you can do some amazing things with it. I’ve spent the last few years exploring  some of those  things . I don’t think ultralearning is the only factor that made my projects possible, but I do believe it was a necessary one.
The same difficulties of ultralearning are also what makes it powerful:
- Self-directedness allows you to learn what you want, when you want, how you want to learn it. Yes, following coaches and teachers can make some things simpler. But often they come with extra restrictions and baggage. If I hadn’t self-educated my computer science background, I highly doubt I would have bothered to go back to school for four years to do it.
- Aggressive learning tactics let you learn better and faster. The Year Without English  is the perfect example of this. Yes, only speaking the target language from Day 1 is really hard. But, it can cut years off of your learning approach than using the more typical casual book study of languages does.
Who Should Ultralearn?
Ultralearning is not for everyone.
Frankly, most people don’t actually care about learning enough to bother with it. This is true of all self-education, so it’s doubly true for ultralearning.
I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with people who are planning to travel to a new country, want to learn the language and ask my advice. When I tell them to not speak English, they nod their head, but I can tell they won’t do it. They just don’t care enough. That’s totally fine, but it’s important to admit that.
Some people have told me they can’t ultralearn because they have kids, or a job, or can’t travel (in the case of languages), or are older. This confuses the idea of ultralearning with the specific approach I used.
The heart of ultralearning is a MacGyver-esque ability to work with whatever resources you have available. It doesn’t matter if you only have an hour per week, no access to resources or time. What matters is the desire to construct a self-education program and the desire to pursue it aggressively, even if that means taking mentally uncomfortable steps.
For most of these people, I suspect are like my friends who travel. They want a convenient excuse for not doing it, but perhaps the true one is better: ultralearning is difficult and whatever they want to learn isn’t a priority enough to merit the effort it would require.
However, the reason I write about ultralearning isn’t to persuade everyone to do it. Instead it’s to show the possibilities for the few people who are interested in taking up the challenge. For the people who want to know the thrill of arriving in a country with little linguistic ability and staying committed to learning through immersion. For the people who want to push themselves harder than they ever thought possible on a skill they’ve been stuck with for decades. For those who want to amass entire fields of knowledge in a timescale that allows them to act on it.
I hope to continue writing about ultralearning and featuring more of my own and others’ projects that fit this paradigm of self-education. Not to convince everyone that I’m right, but to encourage a few people to learn more than they think they are capable of.