Lessons Learned From Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World – Part 3

Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Hardback Book


This book contains so much wisdom I have had to split the posts into separate parts.

In the first part I looked at what Epstein told us about abstraction and learning environments and in the second part Interleaving and analogies.

In this third part, I am going to summarise Epstein’s findings on why job-switching can be a good thing, when a generalist or specialist is best for solving problems and how being a generalist can make you better at prediction.

Job-Switching Can Lead to Greater Happiness

The traditional career path of our grandparents was to get a job, stick at that one company, learning the ropes and gradually climb the career ladder through hard work. Today, millenials change job more than any previous generation. Epstein’s research tells us that is not a bad thing. Phew! I’ve had 5 jobs 5 years out of university!

Successful job-switching does require some planning to be successful though.

The key is to try your hardest to get something out of the job before you move on. Learning what you do and don’t like requires dedication. Job-switchers, are more likely to find a satisfying career, than people who stick at their first job.

Epstein tells about how Van Gogh became one of the greatest painters of all time. He was the best switcher in the game, he tried a different art style every few weeks. Each time he would try a completely new style. Become obsessed with it and completely focus all his efforts on perfecting it. Then one day he would get bored, and drop it. The he’d move on to a new art style doing the same thing all over again.

A typical few months for Van Gogh could look like this:

  1. Learn oil paints
  2. Master oil paints
  3. Never oil paint again
  4. Learn charcoals
  5. Master charcoals

… You get the idea

Fear of Changing Career

Quitting a career path can feel like you have wasted too much time and effort getting to where you are. This is often called the sunk cost fallacy and is the wrong way to think about this problem. Epstein quotes Seth Godin, saying the time is already wasted. It’s actually braver to quit and start something new, than to keep on in a career you hate.

Little Bets Beat Grand Plans

When you leave school and often many years before, people will ask you “what do you want to do?”. For most of the western world, we start our first careers between the ages of 18-29. Between these ages, you tend to change more as a person, than at any other point in your working life. These personality changes make it almost impossible to plan your career. You’re planning for a stranger.

A better method to make effective career decisions is to make a short plan, test it, then reflect. Little bets.

Little bets allow you to try out lots of different ideas and learn from each one. You will learn more by making these little bets than you would from deep introspection. You can get real data about how you respond to certain jobs and environments. Analysing the data allows you make better decisions.

The analysis can be simple e.g. working as data analyst:

  • Did I like working behind the scenes or would I rather be on the front lines?
  • Did I like the intellectual challenge or do I want a different kind of challenge?
  • Did I like being at a compute all day or do I want to be outside more?

When Hyperspecialisation is Blinding

Hyper-specialisation has created experts who know very narrow topics at extreme depth. This has led to many fields having problems that their experts can’t solve. These experts think too narrowly, they can’t connect ideas outside of their expertise.

A new point-of-view can often help solve a problem. This is the logic behind sites like https://www.innocentive.com/. The site offers up problems to the public for anyone to solve. The problems have usually stumped experts for too long. The hope is someone not specialised in the field will see something no one else has. The reward for doing so, is a cash prize.

Depth Vs Breadth

Lateral thinking is being able to think broadly and make connections across multiple concepts and fields.

Vertical thinking is being able to think deeply and specialise in a topic.

Deep thinking doesn’t trump broad thinking and vice versa. But together they make great teams, when they are able to work as a team. Often a T-shaped person, someone who has both depth and breadth, can bridge the two types of thinker.

3M studied inventors and found :

If the question is unclear and the outcome you want is unknown, hire a broad thinker.

Do you have clear problem with specific limitations? You need a specialist.

Polymaths often have wider interests than generalists, but less depth than a specialist. These tend to be the most successful inventors of all.

Specialists Make Bad Predictions

Professor Tetlock, author of Superforecasters, has names for the two types of forecaster: Hedgehogs and Foxes.

Hedgehogs can do one thing very well and tend to do that thing often (specialists)

Foxes can do many things quite well but not as good as any hedgehog at each thing (generalists)

Foxy Thinking

Foxes make the best forecasters, not because they know more, but because of how they think.

Foxes view their ideas as hypotheses they can test. Foxes will update their ideas when new information disproves their original idea. They change their ideas to match evidence, not the other way round.

Foxes do everything they can to disprove their own ideas. They don’t aim to prove they’re right, they aim for the truth.

Foxes are open-minded and flexible. They don’t follow simple cause and effect models. It’s not if X then Y, but rather many small chunks of information combined. Each chunk having its own cause and effect. Foxes use statistics to find what is most likely, rather than attempting to find certainty.

Hedgehog-Style Thinking

Hedgehogs makes predictions based on a specialised theory. Once they gain new information they change their interpretation of the data to fit their original idea. Hedgehogs have low open-mindedness.

Hedgehogs tend to be stubborn. They believe that if they succeed, their theory was correct, if they fail, then it must have been a near miss.

Hedgehogs are so specialised they tend to think with blinkers on. They don’t have a super focus on ignoring new evidence that disagrees with their beliefs. They excel at finding evidence that supports their beliefs. A good example would be any conspiracy theorist.

Lessons Learned From “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World” – Part 2

Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Hardback Book


The Slow Power of Interleaving

Interleaving is practising many skills in one session. Block learning is practising each skill one at a time. An example of a study plan for each, where the exam contains the 3 topics Shapes, Sums and Algebra is below:

1Shapes, Sums, Algebra
2Shapes, Sums, Algebra
3Shapes, Sums, Algebra
An interleaved study plan
A block learning study plan

Block Learning

Block learning is easier and leads to quicker progress in the beginning. The quick progress feels good to students. Students who feel good in their learning, leave better reviews of their teachers. However, the surveys don’t mean everything, as the block-taught students often get worse exam results.

Block learning only teaches you how to do a skill, not when to use it. You can end up knowing lots of solutions to problems, but not be able to match solutions to the right problems. For example, if you were a software developer, you may know the perfect way to write an algorithm but have no idea when it’s useful. Making your development skills pretty poor.


Compared to block learning, interleaving feels like more of a struggle. Short-term progress is slower, but this discomfort is good, you learn more deeply.

When you interleave, you learn to look at a problem and figure out which method will fix that problem. In the working world, you will face many problems where the solution isn’t clear. Again, if you were a software developer, someone in the business might need you to get them all the sales from June. They don’t know how to do it, that’s why they asked you. So you need to know how to report sales in June and which of your tools will best solve the business person’s problem.

Interleaving Vs Block Learning

Block learning teaches you how.

Interleaving teaches how and what.

Block learning and interleaving give you the tools to solve problems. Only interleaving teaches you when to use which tool. This is why when studying for an exam, it can be better to study past papers. The different topics are all mixed up. You have to recognise the question and which tool will give you the answer.

Block learning can be useful to drill one topic, then you put it back in to the mix once you’re more comfortable with it.

Use Analogies to Understand

An analogy is finding a similarity between two things that aren’t obviously similar. For example in your science class at school, your teacher might have compared the heart to a pump. Your heart is an organ, a pump is a tool, but each one pushes liquids around.

Epstein mentions a study that tells us that the most effective labs have scientists from the wide-ranging fields. The scientists tend to be multidisciplinary. Having knowledge across 2 or more fields helps them find solutions not obvious in either one field. Specialists have extremely deep knowledge in one narrow field, so they can’t make these cross-boundary discoveries.

What Makes a Good Analogy?

A good analogy will be different on the surface but similar at a deeper level. Where a ‘good’ analogy is one that helps you understand something new.

Social distancing that everyone is talking about these days can be pretty confusing. It’s not a term we used before the COVID-19 pandemic. Why are we doing it? Does it help if I say that normal social conventions include mass gatherings and contact with multitudes of people on a daily rate, that can cause an exponential growth of the disease by multiplying infection rate?

Or does the below video that compares infections to ping pong balls make the concept clearer?

On the surface infections and ping pong balls have nothing in common, but at the deeper level, this analogy explains how social distancing helps using an analogy we can understand more easily.

Using Analogies to Learn

Making good analogies is hard. To deepen your learning, interrogate your analogies, where do they fit? Where do they fall down?

How are ping pong balls hitting mousetraps not the same as a population of people who may or may not have COVID-19?

Learn about abstraction, Kind and Wicked environments and more in part 1

Lessons Learned From “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World” – Part 1

Growing up I would jump from interest to interest all the time. I thought this meant I gave things up too often, but perhaps I was a generalist. If, like me, you find that focusing on one path forever doesn’t suit you, then this book is for you. David Epstein teaches us why not wanting to specialise may be our biggest strengths.

The book had so many interesting ideas that I couldn’t summarise them all in one post. Instead, I will be splitting the summary into a mini-series, starting with this post.

Kind Environments and Wicked Environments

Careers are not made equal. You have Kind environments and Wicked environments.

Qualities of Kind environments:

  • Easy to define successes and failures
  • Clear feedback
  • Examples include games, music and sports

You can measure success in a game or sport by winning or losing. When playing music, you can hear if it is wrong. Sports have world champions, Orchestras have First Chair’s. In Kind environments specialising is better for success and outdoing the competition.

Wicked environments are the opposite:

  • No clear definitions of success
  • Feedback varies in usefulness and how often you get it
  • Examples include most knowledge work

You can’t win or lose at accountancy. How do you compare software developers? Who is the world champion at repairing cars? Where do you rank in your job?

Abstraction is a Skill

Abstraction is understanding connections and differences between things.

To give an example, you see a bike, a tricycle and a car. You can tell that the bike and tricycle are similar and the car is different. You pedal a bike and a tricycle, cars have engines.You can also tell what a car has in common with the bike and tricycle. They all have wheels and are all modes of transport.

You can access more information on your phone than your grandparents saw in their whole lives. You can categorise all this information. These categories allow you to say what is similar and what is different between billions of things. Your ability to do this would seem superhuman a few hundred years ago.

Epstein illustrates this with a tale of some remote villagers. They had lived in their small part of the world for generations, not having access to the outside world. They were the closest thing we have to humans before the modern world. Researchers asked the villagers questions, to see how they think.

The villagers were told “in cold, snowy weather, bears are always white, north of here it is cold and snowy” then they were asked “What colour are the bears?”

The villagers replied “I don’t know, I have never been there” – they decided they couldn’t know something that was outside of their direct experience. They couldn’t abstract information.

The villagers were asked to find the odd one out given the following items:

  • Bullet
  • Rifle
  • Dagger
  • Bird

The villagers said there is no odd one out, they are all connected. You put a bullet in a rifle, to shoot the bird, which you cut for meat with the dagger, it’s the only way – they didn’t see a difference between weapons and prey, but instead saw how each one connected to their daily experience.

Self-Taught Vs By-The-Book Teaching

If you want to learn an instrument, you may feel it’s best to get a teacher. It will be easier and at the beginning and quicker. But, if you are willing to struggle at first and take your time, you could become a better musician.

It is slow and difficult to learn to play music by ear, but it forces you figure it out for yourself.

You learn how to learn.

Musicians who learned by mimicking music they’ve heard, are often called “naturals”. They seem to have a way with the instrument. In truth, they have the hard won skill of learning how to learn effectively.

Many classically trained musicians, whilst being elite musicians, struggle to improvise. Classical training is very strict, there is a right way and a wrong way to play. Improvisation is more free flowing and it’s harder to define what’s “good”.

Classical musicians are specialists in their music, playing with discipline and precision. Improvisers are generalists, able to pick up any tune and make it their own.

Come back next time to see what Epstein can teach us about interleaving and analogies.

Principles of Ultralearning: 9) Experimentation

As you master a skill, you will find there are fewer resources available and fewer people who’s skill level exceeds your own.

Once you reach the boundaries of human knowledge in a subject, there is no set path to improving.

You have to experiment and figure out what works for yourself.

3 Types of Experimentation for Learning

Experimenting in learning is about testing an idea, seeing if it works and doing more of what works.

Experimenting with Resources

To experiment with your resources plan a small project using a new medium or learning resource, dedicating a noticeable amount of time to it.

Then move on to the next if you don’t like it, if you do, then stick with it.

Experimenting with Technique

Once you have the basics of a skill down, its less about “how should I learn this?” and more about “what should I learn next?”.

If you were learning to draw, you may have got by doing perspective by eye, but you could try improving your perspective with vanishing points or a full perspective grid.

Experimenting with Style

There’s no one right way to do art or solve a problem.

Raphael, Picasso and Van Gogh all have completely different looking art, yet they are all considered masters.

Maybe you can’t draw with a pencil, but you create beautiful paintings or charcoals. Try each style aggressively before you move on.

Learn your strengths and weaknesses so you can cultivate your favourite styles or create your own.

Experimentation Mindset

This is a combination of a Growth Mindset (knowing that your knowledge and skills are not fixed, but can be improved at any time) and the knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know.

You can only find out by exploring for yourself.

How to Experiment

It’s all well and good, knowing that experimentation helps, but how do you do it?

Copy, then Create

Choose some work you admire, then copy it.

It’s that simple.

This will allow you to draw inspiration from others and help you to deconstruct what is and isn’t good practice in your chosen skill.

If you were a writer looking to explain things more clearly, you could read good explanations and break down what makes them good.

Is it their use of examples? Analogies? Or something else?

Spot the Difference

Remember the game from when you were a kid, where two similar pictures were next to each other and you had to spot where a character’s tail was missing in one or a window had a face in one but not the other?

Try this with your learning.

Take two approaches to learning a skill, then compare the results.

This could help you find a technique you prefer or it could show more than one solution to a problem.

You could, if you were a developer try solving a coding problem, use two different languages to see how they’re performance differs or if one requires less challenging syntax.

Introduce New Constraints

Sometimes being constrained actually forces you to be more creative.

One of Dr. Seuss’s most popular works “Green Eggs and Ham” came about because someone bet him he could not write a story only using 50 unique words.

Haiku’s are massively popular despite their rigid rules (five syllables, then seven, then five again) and many of Shakespeares greatest poems were confined to the rules of sonnets (rhyming as such: a-b-a-b c-d-c-d e-f-e-f g-g).

Find your unique combination of skills

You probably aren’t the best striker in the world, nor the best mathematician or best violinist.

You may just be the best mathematical-striker-violinist.

The author of Dilbert has said before that he is not the funniest person ever, nor the best at drawing or workplace satire, but he can combine all three to make a hugely popular web-comic series.

Explore the Extremes

Many great things happen at the boundaries.

Some of Van Gogh’s best works were using the brightest colours, the thickest paints, the fastest drafts.

Take something to the limit and see what you can achieve.

This is the final Principle of Ultralearning, to see the rest click here.

Please let me know below if you have any experiments you want to try.

Principles of Ultralearning: 8) Intuition

Split-second decisions take a strong intuition
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

If you see the top athletes in the world performing, they aren’t spending hours agonising over every move they make.

They are reacting in real-time, making bold moves.

It’s like they’re on a different level.

Because they are.

They can intuitively see how things will play out due to years of experience giving them an edge that most people will never attain.

Think about the racing lines F1 drivers take, they aren’t the ones you would want to take, that’s because you haven’t driven cars like that at those speeds, but they are the best in the world at it.

How To Build Your Intuition

It’s all well and good me telling you that experts are great, but how can you develop it?

Don’t Give Up So Easily

The worst part of learning something new, is the very beginning when everything seems too difficult and too confusing.

You might think that this just isn’t for you and you would do better just giving up.


Once you get through the difficult beginning, you will see yourself improving and maybe even start enjoying yourself.

If you reach a point where you feel you really can’t go on. Your head hurts, the problem or technique just isn’t getting any easier, set a timer for 10 minutes.

Then keep working even if it’s just to satisfy the stupid timer.

This will either be the little bit of extra time you need to figure the problem out, if not, at least you made it that far. Try again another time with fresh eyes.

Prove Things To Yourself to Understand Them

You understand things much more deeply, if you can prove it to yourself.

Want to see that magnets attract North to South, put two magnets together and see the like ends repel and opposite ends attract.

Young gives an example, do you know how a bicycle works?

Great! So draw one.

It doesn’t have to be a perfect rendering, just get the general outline. Now compare your drawing to the picture below. Did you get the chain in the right place? Did you include it at all?

Drawing something out or explaining to someone shows us where our knowledge gaps are and it forces us to confront them.

It’s easy to think you understand something, but actually proving it in writing or drawing it out will show you how much you really get it.

Always Start with a Concrete Example

Deeper processing of thoughts makes the memory more strongly imprinted in your mind.

So if you can relate a concept to another via an analogy, you are more likely to remember it and understand more.

Finding a good analogy is difficult. That’s what makes it so effective.

If you can relate two seemingly unrelated ideas, you must have understand what makes them similar and where they differ.

If you find your analogy doesn’t fit, great! You can find a better one. The process of improving each time will deepen your understanding with each iteration.

Don’t Fool Yourself

Yourself is the easiest person to fool (Richard Feynman said this first, not me).

To make sure you aren’t just gaining the illusion of understanding, you can test yourself against an expert, prove it to yourself or create an analogy as above.

Richard Feynman was a master of this, he taught himself new subjects all the time by breaking the idea down, analogising and teaching it.

The way he did it is well documented, and has been called the Feynman Technique

How to Learn Anything with the Feynman Technique

  • Write what you want to understand at the top of a page
  • Write out the idea or problem as if you are teaching it to someone else, add diagrams where necessary and use analogies to make it easier to understand for your imaginary student
  • Now the most important step, check any areas you couldn’t easily explain, study it and try again from the beginning

Feynman used this to help him understand practically everything he wanted to learn and to explain it to others.

He went on to become one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

Here are 3 ways to use the Feynman technique:

Understand Something New

Use the first two steps of the Feynman technique, but follow along with the book, video or wherever you are getting your information.

Constantly referring to the source, will make you less likely to remember it as you aren’t actively practicing recall, but in the beginning this is okay.

Understanding comes first, memorising comes later.

Problems You Can’t Solve

If you can’t figure something out, no matter how long you stare at it, it’s time to break down the problem and figure out where you’re getting stuck.

Try to understand every step of the problem.

You may just find something you didn’t see before and that will be the lightbulb moment that allows you to solve the problem.

If not, you will have a much clearer understanding, so if you do ask for help, you know where you’re struggling and can ask better questions.

Deepening Your Understanding

There is a famous saying that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

Using the Feynman technique to fill in your knowledge gaps, analogise and teach others, you will be able to better understand any topic.

That’s actually why I started this blog. If I can share ideas I’ve read, so you can understand them, then I must have understood it myself.

What do you want to learn but are struggling with? Let me know in the comments below.

To learn about the other Principles of Ultralearning click here or get the book here.

Principles of Ultralearning: 7) Retention

Try to remember the faces of everyone you met the first day of school…
Photo by GoaShape on Unsplash

Remember, remember, the 5th of…Something.

Do you ever struggle to remember the Pythagoras’ theorem, even though it was drilled into your head in school?

Memory isn’t perfect.

We forget things.

Scott Young, who wrote Ultralearning, says there are 3 reasons we forget:

  • Decay
  • Interference
  • Forgotten Cues


Memories fade over time.

Try to remember your Reception teacher’s face. What colour was their hair? What about their eyes? Did they have a soft or harsh voice?

Now do the same for your boss at work.

Much easier, right?

Memories lose their potency over time, because our brain has retrieved them recently, so the pathways in your brain become less defined, they decay.


Your existing memories can actually make it harder to make new memories.

There are 2 forms of Interference:

  • Proactive
  • Retroactive


Something you have already learned makes learning something new more difficult.

Think of all the connotations you have for the word “Negative”.

Bad? Moody? A downer?

Then it may confuse you, when I say that in Psychology Negative Reinforcement can be a good thing.

Negative Reinforcement means to take something away.

This is neutral, it can be good or bad, the thing being taken away could be pain, which would be good. Or you could take away pleasure, which would be bad.

For example, you could have horrible pains that go away the moment you press a button. Eventually, through Negative Reinforcement, you will learn to press that button to take away your pain every time you feel pain.


This is where a new memory pushes out an old memory.

To be honest, I don’t know the neuroscience on this one, but I can tell you what happens.

An example, would be if you started to learn spanish and you began to forget your french.

Forgotten Cues

This is the feeling when you are so close to remembering something, but you just can’t quite get the words out.

You know if you just hear the first letter or the start of the phrase, you could remember the name of the actor who played Professor X in X-Men.

The little jog you need to remember is your cue.

If you know your cue for remembering something, this can be very useful for triggering a memory when needed.

Like when people make L’s with their hands to remember left and right.

How To Remember

There are 3 main ways to retain memories long term

  • Spacing
  • Proceduralisation
  • Overlearning


Spacing means learning your new skill over gradually increasing time-intervals, rather than all at once in one big cram session.

Spacing works best for things you can get right or wrong: facts, definitions, vocabulary ,etc.

Spacing needs to be done within reason, once a twice a week would be sensible, rather than once or twice every 10 years.

Too long a gap and you will have forgotten so much there won’t have been anything to retain.

I talked about Spacing in the post on retrieval.


Procedures, once learned, are easier to remember than concepts you have to describe.

You can test this right now.

Type the word “shunt” without looking at the keyboard.

You may make a typo but it was easy, right?

Now tell me the two letters either side of “u” on the keyboard… I guessed “i” and “w”.

If you look at your keyboard you will see I got one right and one very wrong.

Did you find typing the word or remembering the letters easier?

Automating skills makes them easier, this is why you can ride a bike your whole life, but describing how to do it to a newbie, so they can actually do it, is very difficult.


Overlearning is where you take your learning of a skill to the next level, to make sure you’ve really mastered it.

By learning something so tightly that you can do it without thinking, you make the pathways in your brain so strong, that even if they start to decay you will still remember most of it.

Fans of “Learning How to Learn” will already know about Overlearning.

There are 2 ways to Overlearn:

  1. You can keep practicing even once you have mastered the skill. You may be able to play a song end to end. Can you do it 5 times in a row with no mistakes and no hesitation? Can you play the song with no warm up? Just pick up the guitar and strum it out? If no, then you can still overlearn some more.
  2. Practice at a level that is more difficult than required. The famous cartoon threat of “I could beat you with one arm tied behind my back” may actually have some relevance here. If you can master a song at a faster tempo than is actually required and with added accents on notes, then the real thing will be easier. If you forget your own harder version, your memory may just decay to the actual level needed.

Retention is easy to confuse with retrieval, but they are different. Retrieval is about being able to recall a memory or learned skill when needed, retention is about maintaining the same level of skill or ability to remember over a long stretch of time.

To learn about the other Principles of Ultralearning, click here.

Principles of Ultralearning: 6) Feedback

Would you drive a car if you were only allowed to touch the steering wheel once? This is what learning with no feedback is like.

Try driving here without touching the steering wheel
Photo by John Lockwood on Unsplash

You can’t improve without feedback.

Anyone who has worked with me, knows I am obsessed with feedback, it’s easily my favourite principle of Ultralearning.

This post is part of an ongoing series about Scott Young’s Principles of Ultralearning

What Does Feedback Mean?

Young offers 3 categories of feedback:

Outcome Feedback

This tells you, at best, if something was good or bad.

You don’t get specific advice.

Examples of outcome feedback include:

  • A Grade on an exam
  • A view count on a video
  • Claps from an audience

Informational Feedback

This is a direct reaction to what you’re attempting.

This is different to outcome feedback, as it happens immediately.

With Informational feedback, you can see straight away that something is wrong, but you will have no clues as to how to correct the problem.

Examples include:

  • A native speaker looking confused when you use a word incorrectly in their language
  • An error message telling you your code couldn’t run
  • Throwing a dart and missing the board

Corrective Feedback

This is advice given by a mentor, teacher or expert.

The most useful and sadly least common type of feedback. This is because it requires the most effort to give to you.

A teacher can see what you’ve done wrong and offer ways for you to improve.

Amateurs may offer you corrections, but their advice is less likely to be accurate or helpful.

Examples of corrective feedback include:

  • A driving instructor helping you correct a manoeuvre
  • Ideal solutions to a maths problem set
  • A Yogi correcting your posture

How to Improve Feedback

You can’t always get corrective feedback, but Young has some tactics to improve any feedback you can get.

Noise Cancellation

If you are writing a blog and one post happens to go viral, think to yourself

“Is this my best post?”

In situations such as these that can’t be easily measured for quality, try to not confuse luck with skill.

Try to pick measures of success that more accurately describe success, for the blog example, this could be people leaving relevant comments on the post, to show you they really engaged with the content.

Hitting the Difficulty Sweet Spot

Every practice session, ask yourself if you are finding it too difficult or too easy.

If it’s the former, find a way to make the task easier, if it’s the latter make it harder.

Making a task harder could be playing a song faster than usual, or adding accents to the notes.

Making a song easier to play, could be to play slower, or just focus on the rhythm until you have that part down.


You can analyse your learning technique by collecting data as you go.

If you were doing maths, you could compare how many questions you get correct week on week.

If it was a language, how many mistakes you make in each conversation.

If you notice you are progressing slower than you were before, it would be a good time to consider making some improvements to your project.

High-Intensity, Rapid Feedback

This can be emotionally very difficult, at first.

Getting severe, critical feedback doesn’t feel nice, but getting used to that feeling and realising you can use it to progress is an excellent way to improve.

If you are learning to draw, expose your drawings to a teacher or a forum where people will criticise your work.

If you are doing a team sport or music, get out there and play in front of people

If you want to create a product, start selling it to people and give them a way to leave reviews, angry people are more likely to reply, but that gives you plenty of access to information on how to improve.

If this post was helpful or not please let me know below, try to offer corrective advice when you do ;).

You can learn about the other principles of Ultralearning or buy the book here.

Principles of Ultralearning: 5) Retrieval

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
Finding the right memory at the right time can be like finding a particular book in a vast library

What did you have for breakfast yesterday? How do you find the area of a circle? Why do black surfaces get hotter than white ones?

If you tried to answer any of those questions, then you tried to retrieve a memory.

Retrieval is our ability to recall memories.

You can’t use a new skill if you can’t remember how to do it.

Classic studying advice involves highlighting key points and re-reading your notes. The former has been found to be next to useless, and re-reading notes isn’t much better.

The best way to remember something and have it stick, is to try to remember it without clues, just trying to summon up that memory.

Practice retrieval over longer periods of time each attempt

When Should You Test Yourself?

The sooner you test yourself the better.

After the first time, you should increase the amount of time from test to test.

If you have simple question and answer formats to what you want to memorise then you could try a spaced-repetition flashcard app like Anki, which is free on to download on your PC or Android.

What Is The Best Way To Test?

Increasing the difficulty of testing will make your learning more efficient.

If you have a choice between a quiz with no clues and a multiple-choice one, the multiple-choice will be more comfortable, but you will learn more from the quiz, even if you get more answers wrong.

Young tells of a study that shows that the very act of trying to retrieve an answer is enough to improve your memory.

This is because each time you try to retrieve a memory, your brain follows the same pathways, getting stronger each time.

It’s like walking the same path through a field over and over, eventually a permanent impression is made in the mud.

Young offers some tactics for retrieval, in addition to flashcards, which you saw a moment ago, there’s also:

Free Recall

If you’re learning from a book, try reading a whole passage, then write down every point you remember without looking at the book.

You can re-read the section after to see if you missed anything important.

Try again with as many passages as you like or the same passage if you want to memorise it.

Question-Book Method

As you are learning material, write down a question where the answer is something you will want to remember later, then only write where to find the answer, like a page number and the book it’s in.

You can quiz yourself later and you will be able to find the answer to check.

You can write the answer on another bit of paper, so you can re-use the question later.

Self-Generated Challenges

Sometimes what you want to learn can’t be tested as simple questions and answers.

You may have learnt a new technique you want to use in programming.

You can challenge yourself to use the new programming technique to solve a problem, such as using a new algorithm to calculate your weekly budget or to find pi.

Closed-Book Learning

You can work on your Drills or Direct Learning project without looking back at your notes or books, to make sure you have to retrieve the knowledge yourself.

Don’t give in to the temptation to read over your notes, until after you’ve done the test.

All these methods can feel uncomfortable, but they’re effective.

Think of it like working out for your brain, when you do a workout for your body, it’s usually the ones that are most difficult that give you the most improvement.

You can learn the rest of the principles here or buy the book here.

Principles of Ultralearning: 4) Drills

Not this kind of drill…Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

Think about something you are learning. What’s the part you find hardest to improve? That’s the thing you work on.

Focusing on the parts you enjoy feels nicer, but it is not the best way to learn. To improve, to really improve, you need to focus on what you really struggle with and attack that problem ruthlessly.

Remove the Noise

Drills take away all the parts of what you want to learn, except the one aspect you want to improve.

If you’re playing guitar, you need rhythm, pick technique, finger placement etc. To drill, you would pick one of these and work at just that.

Direct-then-Drill Method

Last week, we looked at why Directness is the best way to learn a whole skill.

Drills are the opposite of Directness. They help you improve a small slice of a skill.

They remove all the real-world subtleties you can’t simulate, doing nothing but drills would mean you wouldn’t be able to Transfer your skills.

Drills are for improving weak spots, not replacing your whole project.

To overcome lack of Transfer, you work directly on the problem, then drill your weak point, then go back to directness and cycle through as needed. Keeping all that precious Transfer.

How Do You Drill?

Designing a good drill, requires that you know what to drill, how to do it and that you actually do it.

Time Slicing

Take a small piece of the main skill and work on it. Once you’ve mastered it, use the small piece as part of the whole again, for example:

Go over the few tricky bars in a song, then practice the whole song.

Take the same type of shot in football, then play a match.

Go over key phrases in a new language, then talk to someone in that language.

Cognitive Components

Skills are actually multiple smaller skills put together. Removing all the other parts you need to focus on, allows you to hone in on the one bit you want to drill.

Going back to the guitar example, if you wanted to work on rhythm, you could strum the beat of the song and mute the strings with your hand, so you don’t have to worry about the melody or your left hand at all.

The Copycat

Copying other work reduces the amount of thinking required to create the drill, so you can focus all your mental effort on the drill itself. You don’t have to work so hard to design a drill if it’s already been designed.

If you wanted to practice being more succinct in your writing, you could take someone’s essay and try to summarise it in fewer words. You could even do it with your own writing.

Magnifying Glass Method

If you can’t find a way to extract the specific sub-skill you want to improve, spend more time and effort on it instead.

If you want to do better research for projects, spend 10 times longer than you normally would.

Prerequisite Chaining

Start learning a skill without learning all the things you “should” learn first.

You can waste a lot of time and a lot of motivation learning all the basics you think you should learn first.

For example, when learning to draw, you can just start drawing, but you may realise that things at a distance don’t look right, so you learn perspective, you carry on drawing, suddenly things don’t look 3d enough, so you learn proper shading, rinse and repeat.

Whereas if you started off with perspective and shading, you might never have enjoyed drawing in the first place.

Drills aren’t fun, but they are an effective way to aggressively improve. Learn the rest of the principles here or buy the book here.

Let me know some ideas you’ve had for effective drills below.

Principles of Ultralearning: 3) Directness

unsplash-logoMiguel Henriques

Have you ever attended a lecture, understood every word, then someone asks you what it was about, but you can’t explain it?

You are not alone. many people struggle to transfer what they have learnt in theory to real life. You may understand that you have to kick a football at a specific spot to make it go to the top left corner, but you still can’t bend it like Beckham. Can you tell I am not up to date with football?

Maybe you heard a colleague explain how to do a fancy formula on your spreadsheet, but then you go to do it on your computer and the numbers all come out wrong. This is because transferring knowledge to actual applications is really hard.

First off, there is nothing wrong with reading books. Books are the source of endless knowledge. The problem is that just reading is not enough to get good at something.

Try reading how do a triple somersault before the first time you get on a diving board and see what I mean.


Transfer is being able to apply knowledge or skills you have to other situations.

Transfer is why a plumber who has never been to your house can fix your sink, they have seen similar problems before. Not the exact same, yet they can transfer their existing skills and fix the new problem.

Explaining a concept using an analogy is also Transfer, you are using your knowledge of one thing to explain another.

Transfer is difficult.

Young cites studies where it has been found that university psychology students who learnt psychology at school level perform no better than students who started for the first time at university. Young says this is because the high school knowledge has not transferred well to university level.

Overcoming Transfer with Directness

Directness is Young’s solution to the difficulties of Transfer. Directness means learning in as similar a way as the one you will actually use the knowledge or skill in.

Directness works for 2 reasons:

  1. The closer your practice is to the real situation you will use the skill, the less Transferring needs to be done. Writing well-researched essays with citations is much more likely to prepare you for writing academic papers, than writing in a diary will.
  2. Learning by doing exposes you to subtle details that you can’t get from theory. When driving, you may understand that you need to find the biting point to move into first gear, but you can’t learn how the biting point feels by reading about it, you’ve got to get behind the wheel and drive!

Tips for Direct Learning

Project-Based Learning

Don’t just read about doing something, do something.

So if you want to program apps, build an app.

If you want to learn carpentry, build a chair.

If you want to climb a mountain, start climbing.

Immersive Learning

Get stuck into the situations you will use the skill for.

If you want to learn french, go to France and don’t speak English (Young did this, with 4 languages in one year) .

This method of learning is scary, but it forces you to get good fast.

It also helps you see where you’re going wrong through feedback (a principle we will look at later). A phrase book can tell you how to say specific phrases, one at a time, but knowing when to say each phrase is much more difficult.

Flight-Simulator Method

Some things you can’t practice in real life. Training fighter pilots in the most dangerous manoeuvres in real planes every time would result in a lot more dead pilots. So fighter pilots train in safe simulators that mimic real life.

The key to a good simulation is having the same level of challenge and the same cues to act, as the real thing. If you have those, then you can forgive slightly low-budget graphics or sound effects.

The skill itself is what really matters.

The Overkill Approach

Aim for a level of challenge you feel you aren’t ready for.

If you aren’t ready you will have to do your best just to be able to do it.

Testing gives you feedback, which helps you improve faster.

If you find the test easy, you need to try something harder. If you keep failing in the same way, you know what to drill later (another principle we will learn soon).

Take an exam you don’t feel you could pass yet.

Play a song you haven’t memorised yet, for an audience.

This is another scary method, but it is backed by research, pushing yourself to your absolute limits in practice has been shown to separate top-performers from the middle of the pack. You will get used to the discomfort.

To learn about the rest of the principles of Ultralearning see the rest of the series here or buy the book here.

Please let me know any projects you want to undertake in the comments below.