Unformatted text preview: Dedication
To Zorica Contents
Chapter I: Can You Get an MIT Education Without
Going to MIT?
Chapter II: Why Ultralearning Matters
Chapter III: How to Become an Ultralearner
Chapter IV: Principle 1—Metalearning: First Draw a
Chapter V: Principle 2—Focus: Sharpen Your Knife
Chapter VI: Principle 3—Directness: Go Straight
Chapter VII: Principle 4—Drill: Attack Your Weakest
Chapter VIII: Principle 5—Retrieval: Test to Learn
Chapter IX: Principle 6—Feedback: Don’t Dodge the
Chapter X: Principle 7—Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky
Chapter XI: Principle 8—Intuition: Dig Deep Before
Chapter XII: Principle 9—Experimentation: Explore
Outside Your Comfort Zone
Chapter XIII: Your First Ultralearning Project
Chapter XIV: An Unconventional Education
About the Author
About the Publisher Foreword
My relationship with Scott Young began in mid-2013. On
July 10, I sent him an email asking if he wanted to set up a call
for the following month. We had met at a conference a few
days earlier, and I was hoping he would be willing to continue
“Possibly,” he replied. “I’ll be in Spain then, and the
language-learning focus of my upcoming project may take
It wasn’t the response I was hoping for, but it seemed
reasonable. Managing calls while traveling internationally can
be tricky, and I understood if he wanted to wait until he
returned. However, I quickly found out that he would not be
returning anytime soon, and it was not the time change nor a
spotty internet connection that would postpone our
No, it would be hard to catch up with Scott because he was
planning to speak no English for an entire year.
Thus began my introduction to Scott Young and his
commitment to ultralearning. Over the next twelve months, I
would trade sporadic emails with Scott as he traveled to Spain,
Brazil, China, and Korea, and proceeded to become
conversational in each of the respective languages along the
way. He was true to his word: it was not until the following
summer in 2014 that we carved out time to catch up regularly
and began chatting with each other every few months.
I was always excited for my calls with Scott—primarily for
selfish reasons. One of my core interests as a writer is the
science of how to build good habits and break bad ones.
Someone like Scott, who had so clearly mastered his own
habits, was exactly the type of person who could teach me a
thing or two. And that’s precisely what happened. I can
scarcely remember finishing a call with Scott and not learning
something during the previous hour. That’s not to say his insight took me by surprise. Scott had
already been on my radar by the time we met at that
conference in 2013. He had catapulted to internet fame one
year prior by learning the entire MIT undergraduate computer
science curriculum and passing all of the final tests in less than
a year—four years’ worth of classes in under twelve months. I
had seen the TEDx Talk summarizing his experience, and I
read a few of his articles on learning and self-improvement
before tracking him down at the conference.
The idea of taking on an ambitious project—like studying
MIT’s undergraduate curriculum in one year or learning a new
language every three months—is inspirational to many people.
I certainly found these bold projects fascinating. But there was
something else about Scott’s projects that resonated with me
on a deeper level: he had a bias toward action.
This is something I have always appreciated about Scott’s
approach and something I believe you will appreciate as a
reader of this book. He isn’t focused on simply soaking up
knowledge. He is committed to putting that knowledge to use.
Approaching learning with an intensity and commitment to
action is a hallmark of Scott’s process. This approach speaks
to me, in part, because I see similar patterns in my own life
and career. Some of my most meaningful experiences have
been the result of intense self-directed learning.
Although I didn’t know the word ultralearning at the time,
one of my first ultralearning projects was photography. In late
2009, I moved to Scotland for a few months. It was my first
time living abroad, and given the beautiful scenery throughout
the Scottish Highlands, I figured I should buy a decent camera.
What I hadn’t expected, however, was that I would fall in love
with the process of taking photos. What followed was one of
the most creative periods of my life.
I learned photography through a variety of methods. I
studied the portfolios of famous photographers. I scouted
locations and searched for compelling perspectives. But, most
of all, I learned through one simple method: I took over
100,000 photos that first year. I never enrolled in a photography class. I didn’t read books on how to become a
better photographer. I just committed to relentless
experimentation. This “learning by doing” approach embodies
one of my favorite chapters in this book and Scott’s third
principle of ultralearning: directness.
Directness is the practice of learning by directly doing the
thing you want to learn. Basically, it’s improvement through
active practice rather than through passive learning. The
phrases learning something new and practicing something new
may seem similar, but these two methods can produce
profoundly different results. Passive learning creates
knowledge. Active practice creates skill.
This is a point that Scott more fully clarifies and refines in
chapter 6: directness leads to skill development. You can
research the best instructions on the bench press technique, but
the only way to build strength is to practice lifting weights.
You can read all of the bestselling sales books, but the only
way to actually get customers is to practice making sales calls.
Learning can be very useful, of course, but the danger is that
the act of soaking up new facts can be disconnected from the
process of refining a new skill. You can know every fact about
an industry and still lack real-world expertise because you
haven’t practiced the craft.
Scott understands the difficulty of actually learning new
skills. I respect him not only for the quality of his writing but
also for the simple fact that he is a practitioner of his own
ideas. I can’t say enough about how important this is: he has
skin in the game. Many ideas sound brilliant on paper but fail
in the real world. As the saying goes, “In theory, there is no
difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there
As for my photography quest, it didn’t take long for my
commitment to direct practice to pay off. A few months after I
bought my camera, I traveled to Norway and ventured above
the Arctic Circle to capture an image of the aurora borealis.
Not long afterward, I was named a finalist for Travel
Photographer of the Year thanks to that image of the Northern Lights. It was a surprising outcome, but also a testament to
how much progress you can make during a short but intense
period of learning.
I never pursued a career as a photographer. It was an
ultralearning project I did for fun and personal satisfaction.
But a few years later, right around the time I first met Scott, I
began another period of intense learning with a more
utilitarian outcome in mind: I wanted to be an entrepreneur,
and I figured writing would be one path that could get me
Once again, I had selected a domain where I had little
formal experience. I had no entrepreneurs in my family, and I
had taken only a single college English class. But as I read
through Ultralearning, I was startled to find that Scott
explained, in nearly step-by-step fashion, the process I
followed to go from unproven entrepreneur to bestselling
Principle #1: Metalearning—I started by examining other
popular bloggers and authors. Their methods helped me to
create a map for what I needed to do to become a successful
Principle #2: Focus—I went full-time as a writer nearly
from the start. Aside from a few freelance projects I took on to
pay the bills, the vast majority of my time was spent reading
Principle #3: Directness—I learned writing by writing. I set
a schedule for myself to write a new article every Monday and
Thursday. Over the first two years, I produced more than 150
Principle #4: Drill—I systematically broke down each
aspect of writing articles—the headline, the introductory
sentence, the transitions, the storytelling, and more—and put
together spreadsheets filled with examples of each segment.
Then I set about testing and refining my ability to perform
each small aspect of the larger task. Principle #6: Feedback—I personally emailed nearly all of
my first ten thousand subscribers to say hello and to ask for
feedback on my writing. It didn’t scale, but it taught me a lot
in the beginning.
… and so on.
My point is that Scott’s method works. By following the
techniques he lays out in this book, I was able to build a
writing career, create a successful business, and, ultimately,
write a New York Times bestselling book. When I released
Atomic Habits, it was the culmination of years of work
centered around the process of ultralearning.
I think it’s easy to hear stories about writing a bestselling
book or learning four languages in a year and think, “That’s
for other people.” I disagree. Learning something valuable and
doing it fast doesn’t have to be confined to some narrow set of
geniuses. It’s a process anyone can embrace. It’s just that most
people never do it because they never had a playbook to show
them how. Until now.
There are good reasons to pursue ultralearning—whether
you are conducting a project for personal or professional
First, deep learning provides a sense of purpose in life.
Developing skills is meaningful. It feels good to get good at
something. Ultralearning is a path to prove to yourself that you
have the ability to improve and to make the most of your life.
It gives you the confidence that you can accomplish ambitious
Second, deep learning is how you get outsized returns. The
simple truth is most people will never intensely study your
area of interest. Doing so—even if it’s just for a few months—
will help you stand out. And once you stand out, you can get a
better job, negotiate for a higher salary or more free time,
network with more interesting people, and otherwise level up
your personal and professional life. Ultralearning helps you
develop leverage that you can use elsewhere. Finally, deep learning is possible. Paul Graham, the famous
entrepreneur and investor, once noted, “In many fields a year
of focused work plus caring a lot would be enough.”*
Similarly, I think most people would be surprised by what they
could accomplish with a year (or a few months) of focused
learning. The process of intense self-directed learning can
fashion skills you never thought you could develop.
Ultralearning can help you fulfill your potential, and that is
perhaps the best reason of all to pursue it.
The truth is, despite the success of my writing and
photography pursuits, these projects were haphazard. I did
them intensely but without guidance or direction. I made a lot
of mistakes. I wish I had this book when I was starting out. I
can only imagine how much wasted time and energy I would
Ultralearning is a fascinating and inspiring read. Scott has
compiled a gold mine of actionable strategies for learning
anything faster. His effort is now your gain. I hope you enjoy
this book as much as I did, and, most important, I hope you
use these ideas to accomplish something ambitious and
exciting in your own life. With the stories and strategies Scott
shares in this book, you will have the knowledge. All that is
left is to take action.
—James Clear Chapter I
Can You Get an MIT Education Without
Going to MIT?
Only a few hours left. I caught myself glancing out the
window as the early-morning light glittered off the buildings
in front of me. It was a crisp fall day, surprisingly sunny for a
famously rainy city. Well-dressed men carried briefcases and
fashionable women pulled miniature dogs beneath my
eleventh-story vantage point. Buses dragged reluctant
commuters into town one last time before the weekend. The
city might have been rousing from its slumber, but I had been
awake since before dawn.
Now is not the time for daydreaming, I reminded myself and
shifted my attention back to the half-finished math problems
scribbled on the notebook in front of me. “Show that for any
finite part of the unit sphere . . .” the problem began. The class
was Multivariate Calculus for the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. The final exam would start soon, and I had little
time left to prepare. What was curl, again . . . ? I closed my
eyes and tried to form a picture of the problem in my head.
There’s a sphere. I know that. I conjured a bright red ball in
my mind’s eye, floating in empty space. Now what was n̂ ? The
n̂ stands for normal, I reminded myself, meaning an arrow
that points straight up from the surface. My red ball became
furry, with hairlike vectors standing straight at all ends. But
what about curl? My imagination turned to waves of tiny
arrows pulsating in a vast sea. Curl marked the eddies,
swirling around in little loops. I thought again to my furry, red
ball with the static-charged hairdo. My fuzzy sphere had no
whorls, so there must not be any curl, I reasoned. But how do I
prove it? I scratched down some equations. Better doublecheck it. My mental pictures were clear, but my symbol
manipulation was a lot sloppier. There wasn’t much time left,
and every second of preparation counted. I needed to grind
through as many problems as possible before time ran out. That was nothing unusual for an MIT student. Tricky
equations, abstract concepts, and difficult proofs are all a
normal part of one of the most prestigious educations in math
and science in the world. Except that I was not an MIT
student. In fact, I had never even been to Massachusetts. All of
this was taking place in my bedroom, twenty-five hundred
miles away in Vancouver, Canada. And although an MIT
student typically covers the entirety of multivariate calculus
over a semester, I had started only five days before. The MIT Challenge
I have never attended MIT. Instead, my college days were
spent studying business at the University of Manitoba, a
middle-ranked Canadian school I could actually afford. After
graduating with a bachelor of commerce, I felt as though I had
picked the wrong major. I wanted to be an entrepreneur and so
had studied business, thinking that would be the best route to
becoming my own boss. Four years later, I discovered that a
business major was largely a finishing school for entrants into
the world of big corporations, gray suits, and standard
operating procedures. Computer science, in contrast, was a
major where you actually learned to make things. Programs,
websites, algorithms, and artificial intelligence were what had
interested me in entrepreneurship in the first place, and I was
struggling to decide what to do about it.
I could go back to school, I thought. Enroll again. Spend
another four years working toward a second degree. But taking
out student loans and giving up a half decade of my life to
repeat the bureaucracy and rules of college didn’t seem very
appealing. There had to be a better way to learn what I wanted.
Around that time, I stumbled across a class taught at MIT
and posted online. It had fully recorded lectures, assignments,
and quizzes; even the actual exams used in the real class with
the solution keys were provided. I decided to try taking the
class. To my surprise, I found that the class was much better
than most of the classes I had paid thousands of dollars to
attend in university. The lectures were polished, the professor was engaging, and the material was fascinating. Digging
further, I could see that this wasn’t the only class MIT offered
for free. MIT had uploaded the materials from hundreds of
different classes. I wondered if this could be the solution to my
problem. If anyone could learn the content of an MIT class for
free, would it be possible to learn the content of an entire
Thus began almost six months of intense research into a
project I named the MIT Challenge. I looked up the actual
MIT curriculum for computer science undergrads. I matched
and compared the list with the resources MIT offered online.
Unfortunately, that was a lot easier said than done. MIT’s
OpenCourseWare, the platform used for uploading class
material, had never been intended as a substitute for attending
the school. Some classes simply weren’t offered and needed to
be swapped out. Others had such scant material that I
wondered if they would even be possible to complete.
Computation Structures, one of the required courses, which
taught how to build a computer from scratch using circuits and
transistors, had no recorded lectures or assigned textbook. To
learn the class content, I would have to decipher abstract
symbols written on a slideshow meant to accompany the
lecture. Missing materials and ambiguous evaluation criteria
meant that doing every class exactly as an MIT student would
was out of the question. However, a simpler approach might
work: just try to pass the final exams.
This focus on final exams later expanded to include
programming projects for the classes that had them. These two
criteria formed the skeleton of an MIT degree, covering most
of the knowledge and skills I wanted to learn, with none of the
frills. No mandatory attendance policy. No due dates on
assignments. The final exams could be taken whenever I was
ready and retaken with an alternate exam if I happened to fail
one. Suddenly what had initially seemed like a disadvantage—
not having physical access to MIT—became an advantage. I
could approximate the education of an MIT student for a
fraction of the cost, time, and constraints. Exploring this possibility further, I even did a test class
using the new approach. Instead of showing up to
prescheduled lectures, I watched downloaded videos for the
class at twice the normal speed. Instead of meticulously doing
each assignment and waiting weeks to learn my results, I could
test myself on the material one question at a time, quickly
learning from my mistakes. Using these and other methods, I
found I could scrape through a class in as little as a week’s
time. Doing some quick calculations and adding some room
for error, I decided it might be possible to tackle the remaining
thirty-two classes in under a year.
Although it began as a personal quest, I started to see that
there were bigger implications beyond my little project.
Technology has made learning easier than ever, yet tuition
costs are exploding. A four-year degree used to be an
assurance of a decent job. Now it is barely a foot in the door.
The best careers demand sophisticated skills that you’re
unlikely to stumble upon by chance. Not just programmers but
managers, entrepreneurs, designers, doctors, and nearly every
other profession is rapidly accelerating the knowledge and
skills required, and many are struggling to keep up. In the back
of my mind, I was interested not only in computer science but
in seeing if there might be a new way to master the skills
needed in work and life.
As my attention drifted once more to the scene developing
outside my window, I thought about how all this had started. I
thought about how I wouldn’t be attempting my odd little
experiment at all had it not been for a chance encounter with
an intense, teetotaling Irishman on another continent almost
three years earlier. Fluent in Three Months?
“My problem isn’t with the French—just Parisians,” Benny
Lewis vented to me in an Italian restaurant in the heart of
Paris. Lewis was vegetarian, not always easy to accommodate
in a country famous for steak tartare and foie gras. Eating a
plate of penne arrab...
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