Learning is a skill, and those who reach their personal and professional potential use the same principles to master it. Scott Young used these principles to complete a computer science degree from MIT in less than 12 months. Then he gathered the best insights from other self-directed learners around the world and codified them in his best selling Book Ultra Learning.In this episode, Scott sits down with Terry to share what he’s learned about learning and the key principles for learning.
What you'll learn:
Terry: Scott, welcome to the show.
Scott: Oh, it’s great to be here.
Terry: I really appreciate you.
coming on. And I mentioned to you.
just before we started recording here that, I read ultra learning a couple of years ago. Absolutely loved that book. And I’ve got this kind of highlight this. So highlight there was so many parts to highlight it’s almost like not worth highlighting.
Scott: Well, thank you.
Terry: it was very useful to me to be able to go back and. Very quickly sort of review everything I learned and it kind of just taught me, I need to go back and have another read of the whole thing, make more notes, because it’s had a real impact on, the way we structured the program for us and the way we kind of work with our clients.
So, thanks so much for the work that you’ve
Scott: Oh, thank you. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Terry: Great. Matt, I wanted to start this interview with just talking a little bit about the MIT challenge. Obviously this is where you start off in the book and, it’s a crazy story for those that haven’t sort of heard of it. So I’d love you to kind of just quickly outline what the MIT challenges and what
Scott: Right. So this was a, now decade ago. So this is like, the time period that’s elapsed, but I graduated from university. I studied business. I was thinking about going back and studying computer science. I’d always been interested in programming. I did some in high school. I did like one or two classes in university, but I never like went into it.
I chose business and stat and I kind of felt, ah, I wish I’d studied this instead. And I was thinking about going back to school and around that time I found that MIT actually puts some of their classes online for free. And now nowadays the idea of a university publishing online classes for free is I think pretty well understood there you have these MOOCs, you have Coursera, there’s so many platforms, but this was like, sort of prior to all that.
And so MIT had a platform called OpenCourseWare and unlike the sort of made for online courses that you see, these were actual MIT classes where someone just like set up a camera in the lecture hall and they just like, we’ll just scan the assignments and the solutions. And it was mostly intended for educators.
It wasn’t really like, , people are going to use this to learn. Cause sometimes the class, like it wouldn’t have the lectures, it would just have like a list link to an old textbook or something. But what kind of struck me when I did one of these classes, was that not only was the quality really good.
They kind of mapped out like what’s in a MIT computer science degree. And so I was really interested. I was thinking well, has anyone ever tried to learn the MIT degree using these resources? And I couldn’t find any examples. Am I, the only one that this occurred to that this is something you could do.
And so I was really keen on, I can talk about it a little bit in the book, but like some of my influences like Steve Pavlina, Benny Lewis of doing these kinds of public learning challenges. I’d spent a lot of time in university talking about study habits and study hacks and stuff. And so I was thinking, oh, this would be a cool little project to do.
And so my. It was to learn MIT’s for your computer science curriculum, which in my case was 33 classes. And the benchmark I wanted to use was to pass the final exams and complete the programming projects. So a little bit stripped down from what an MIT student would do, but the idea was to try to do it in 12 months.
And so , that works out to being about a class every week can half or so. And I did do some of the classes in parallel, so it wasn’t like just one after the other. But I mean, obviously this is a kind of an intense project. And when I finished it that got me a little bit of attention and that led to some other projects, which we can talk about and eventually to writing this book and talking about, , not just myself, but all these other people who are doing these kinds of interesting feats of what I’ll call ultra learning.
the stories in the book. they’re really inspiring for me. I was like, I finished the book and I thought I had, it’s amazing that, you could, unlock all that potential within yourself if you just have the right operating system. feel like that’s what you provided within the book, but I’d love to just take a
quick step back. And you talked about how in, university, you kind of always interested in these studies. I try to doing these things
better and not many people think like this, thinking about doing the thing
better. So I would love to know where that came from
Scott: Yeah, well, I think I’ve always been interested in learning. And when I started writing my blog initially it was a kind of general self-improvement blog. So I was interested in habits and goal setting. And I was interested in, in entrepreneurship and starting my own business. And I think that’s very natural that like, you get into doing this, almost everyone fails at this kind of profession.
And then suddenly you get really interested in like, okay, I need to focus on productivity and performance because just showing up, isn’t going to be enough. Like most people who want to be, , online writers or have their own business online, they don’t do it very well. And so that got me interested in it.
And when I was in university balancing act was I had to also balance my studies. And so some of the stuff that I wrote that was about studying kind of got popular and, and it was already interested in self-education and learning. My website and business and everything slowly evolved in that direction.
And now it’s such a part of me that it’s like hard to think. , everything I think about is about learning now. So it’s hard to like, think about it in any other way, but I feel like for me, learning is the kind of core idea of all self-improvement of everything , people tend to think about it in terms of studying that like learning is
about, , memorizing facts and stuff.
but if you see it as the process of psychological change then it’s everywhere. it’s your relationships, it’s your money, it’s your wealth, it’s your happiness, it’s all learning. There’s nothing that’s not learning. And so I think if you have some insight into that process, for whatever it’s worth, I think that probably is a useful investment to make in life.
Terry: Absolutely not, that’s the whole premise of this little short series here
is like, we see it as probably the most valuable skill that you could invest in learning how to learn because of how fast things are changing. Now. I’m sure you’ve seen all those stats. And I think he quoted a few in the
book about how quickly technology is changing and how much that we’re kind of struggling to adapt to that speed in that pace.
How do you see those two things playing out? , in the future, it seems like it’s just running away. It’s going so fast that you just, there’s no way that you can even hope to keep up. So that’s where I’m sort of really interested in like, how do we stay as agile
and adaptable as possible?
Scott: Well, I think it’s a bit of a cliche to say that , , everyone has to be a constant learner and self educator now in this kind of thing. I mean, it’s true, but it’s like kind of a little bit, you’ve heard it too much at this point, but I think. with everything that’s happening in the world right now, what we see is that people who have kind of deep knowledge bases, they have lots of skills.
They’ve spent lots of time honing and practicing. are the people that tend to have really successful careers. They tend to do well in life. And I think there’s a dark side of that as well, which is that, , many of the kind of middle-class promises that were like, well, you just go there, show up, you do some sort of almost mechanical task day in, day out.
, you can have a nice house with a garage and for, , 2.5 kids or something that’s, that promise is being eroded. And so I think, , I don’t want to be a fear monger in that way, but I think that, , this book taps into that anxiety, I think a lot of people have about their place in a society that is becoming like, More competitive more credentialist that like, , everyone wants to outdo each other, , and having the highest flashiest degrees and stuff.
And yet being just inundated with new tools, new technologies, new strategies, oh, you gotta be doing this now you gotta be doing that. Now you got to be doing this now. And so I don’t think that the reaction to that should be a kind of frenzy, but I think the more that you’re comfortable learning new things, the more you’re comfortable being, ? Okay. Well, I’m going to figure this out, and know that you have the ability to do that. I think the better the situation you’re going to be in
Terry: What does it like? you obviously detailed some of
your experiences in the book and you talk about mic
challenge. You talked about teaching yourself, how to draw. You talked about learning. Was it three different languages,
Scott: Yeah, well, I did four on that trip. That was one of the projects documented the book. And then since the book was published, I also started learning Macedonia to my wife’s language. So I mildly regret how many that there is the definitely the maintenance become a real chore, but yeah.
Terry: what is it like, from a confidence point of view, to be able to walk through the world and know, I know how to pick things up
and I’m not afraid of picking up something new and being able to master I’ve got that operating system. It’s a part of what I do.
Scott: Yeah. I think part of it for me was just sort of realizing that there was another layer to the problem. Like I just had an email exchange with someone who is in a class that like, they find really boring and it’s like, they need to do it to get their grades so they can, , have a successful life and whatever.
But when they look at the subject, it’s just, I am, I’m not interested in this. And I think everyone can relate to this. And I mean, I’ve been in those kinds of classes before, but I think what, this sort of process of learning how to learn. Understanding some of these ideas about psychology, memory, skill, acquisition, this kind of stuff, is that you kind of can move it up a level and turn whatever is a challenge at the kind of okay.
Learning this level to assertive puzzle in the kind of learning how to learn level. So if it’s, , I think one of the reasons I was really drawn to learning Mandarin Chinese is because it, it forms this kind of puzzle of like, oh my God, there’s so many characters and the pronunciation so hard there’s tones.
And like a lot of stuff that I think would have been really daunting to me years ago. Whereas now it’s kind of like, oh, I wonder what is the right way to do this? how would you break that down? how would you do that? that can also create its own problem. Cause sometimes you get sucked into learning things that like, maybe you didn’t really need to learn that, but you just find it too interesting.
But I feel like that’s a good problem to have is to be like, , over eager to learn things that then to be the person avoids it. But I mean, if I were to say there to be any benefit of the book, I would put it in that lens that Definitely from a learning how to learn perspective.
I think, , nothing replaces doing the work. So, sometimes there is a tendency to view kind of like I’m going to stop everything I’m doing and then learn how to learn and then start doing it. And the way I would put it as, no, you want to view it as something alongside your project.
So the way you learn how to learn well, as you take on lots of learning projects of your own design, you learn from your mistakes. Like it is something you do through doing it. But I think if you can read my book, maybe a few psychology texts, depending on how deeply you want to go into this, you can get some of the basic ideas and those can give you tools for handling certain problems.
So, there’s lots of tools for memorizing things and there’s lots of tools for like skill acquisition and down concepts and like things that you can be like, oh, okay. So this was struggling. I was struggling with this before. What’s a way I could get past it.
I’m interested to dive into some of these principles here in a minute, but before we do, I’d love to just, dig in on just one point that you made there. And I think it’s probably what a lot of people I guess struggle with. And it’s for you, you saw it as a puzzle. You see, you kind of
lean into the challenge as a puzzle, and you’ve got that real growth mindset.
Is there a way from your perspective that you can cultivate that? So if you’re the kind of person who is more, leaning away from those
challenges from time to time and you want to actually be, Yeah.
I want to be the opposite. I want to start to lean into that and I want to build this confidence in myself to be able to do it.
Is there anything that you could kind of put your finger on? That’s helped you in that.
Scott: Yeah. I think this is a, a process that takes time to develop. And so I think part of the issue is that if you have a lot of negative experiences with learning, whether it was in school, whether it was sort of a stressful job situation or what have you, this can kind of like load up new efforts to learn things with a kind of negative emotions so that you kind of have more pushing away from it when you’re going into it.
And I think you need to start building in those positive experiences taking on small projects to do things where you kind of set out to learn something, and then you achieve it, that can kind of a virtuous cycle. I know in my own. Like doing the MIT challenge. I definitely that was a struggle, like that was not an easy challenge, but after I did that, I feel like it unlocked a lot of oh, okay.
not that it’s not going to be a lot of work, but feel a lot more confident taking on things that I would just be like, oh, there’s no way I would like to try to do that before.. And so, deal with the certain issues where often you struggle with, I don’t know, that sounds kind of hard.
I think is often to just start with little things and build up your confidence.
Terry: from what I’m hearing, what you’re saying is basically start small so you can have a win cause you need to collect. it’s very much along the lines of what James clear wrote the forward for your
book. , he talks about collecting evidence,
And we talk about that a lot as well. Is that, what you.
Scott: for me, I like construing it in terms of projects. I know James clear and no disrespect to him. He’s a big fan of habits. And I think habits often very good, particularly once you kind of get established in something a little bit, but I, I view learning often as a little project.
It’s something that , you have to break it down. You’re going to spend maybe a month, maybe up to three months, especially for early ones, it’s probably better that they be smaller and you fix on something very specific and concrete look, I’d like to be able to do X or I’d like to, , get as far as I can with skill Y , spending an hour a day, or what have you.
And I think that process of picking the project, defining. Actually executing it, , finishing it, checking it off the list, doing another project. that’s the virtuous cycle I think we want to create. And I think the challenge sometimes is that we often approach these learning efforts in a very haphazard way.
So we kind of like, well, I want to kind of do this. And then you, , maybe you browse around a little bit and you don’t really do any practice and you kind of wait. And so idea of the project is to try to isolate and figure out, well, what is it you’re supposed to be working on? What is it that you actually have to do?
this is the approach that at least that has worked for me is, to view them as these little like, kind of capsules of effort that you have to go through.
Terry: Yeah. read
about how Elon Musk’s schools operate. They
Hanna have challenges and then
you learn specific subjects through the challenges. So he’s like, don’t, learn geometry, build a bike and you’ll learn geometry through building the bike. is that
along the lines of what you.
Scott: I think the problem is just that you want to find some sort of container for what you want to learn, like what your ambition is, because, , when I talk to people, the problems that they just have sort of vague.
I want to do this and it’s just as big sprawling, vague, massive a thing. And I mean, yeah. Okay. You just kind of plunk away at it for 20 years. Maybe you’re really good at it, but it requires a lot of happy accidents along the way. Like you have to start really enjoying the process and you have to like, those things are all good.
Whereas I think sometimes if you’re sorta like, okay, well I want to be able to like, learn enough Spanish that when I go on this two week trip to Mexico, I can order food in the restaurant and do the tax code. Oh, okay. Now I’ve got my resource. I’m going to do my practice at, and I’m good to go.
And I think that’s how I view the project is they set end points. this is what I’m doing. This is the scope. And so you can have projects that are very, like, hands-on, like you said, with Elon Musk, you can have ones where you’re like just doing something and then that sort of like forcing you to learn things.
But you can also have projects where okay, I want to learn history and I’m gonna like read these seven books that, , maybe were a little dry and I to like push through them. But I’m going to come out the other side, knowing a lot about this topic that I was interested in.
Terry: That’s good. Cause it kind of leads me to the next part. So, , you kind of mentioned there one of the biggest mistakes is people just not being clear
on what success looks like when they
start out, but I’m kind of interested to find out from your perspective, like, I love that principle of inversion where you look at things backwards to figure out how to move forwards.
Right. So, , before we get to the principles, what I’d love to know from your perspective is if we’re trying to invert this and I do it backwards and I’ll ask you the question, if I wanted to learn slowly and. What are the things that I’d be doing?
Scott: Well, I think the first thing I want to clarify is that I don’t think that the opposite of ultra learning is learning slowly. I think the opposite of ultra learning is not learning at all. So I think that that’s that’s an important distinction to make though, because I think sometimes my advice is like go through it as fast as possible and that like, I like going through slowly and taking my time, but it’s not about that.
I think it’s about what’s effective and what’s not effective and effectiveness, , naturally over a given time period, you’re going to be faster. But I think the right way to think about it is, is what works versus what doesn’t work. And so what I would say doesn’t work, I would say spending a lot of time learning things that are not that related to what you’re actually trying to get good at.
So that’s sort of the inversion of the directness principle. It would be spending lots and lots of time. , if you’re a student or you have to like memorize or learn something by heart just looking at it over and over and over again, never testing yourself, never practicing retrieval. It would be never getting any feedback.
It would be not focusing in and practicing on like the specifics that you need to get good at. Just kind of like ass lawfully, doing things like there’s lots of things like this. That would be the inversion. I think one of them, which I don’t stress in the book, but I think could be, there is like, , never seeking out a teacher and never wanting to like, learn from someone who knows how to do it and, , studying them in this kind of thing.
So these are all really bad habits that we fall into. But I think the one that trumps all of them perhaps is a kind of vague ambition to like, ah, I’d like to learn this, but you never really put in any kind of serious work. kind of tinker, you play a game, you, , like it’s the person who plays Duolingo for eight months collecting points that they never actually had a single two-second interaction with someone in the language like That’s the way to not do it. So ultra learning, I think can be in this impressive compressed timeframe. And I mean, I certainly highlight that in the book to kind of show what’s possible, but I’m not against the person who wants to patiently put in work to their craft over a decade. I think the opposite is the person who doesn’t want to put in the work or they’re putting in a kind of work.
not going to get them there.
Terry: yeah. Good. And why do you think this happens? why are we sort of geared towards dabbling in that way? Who are we just too vague. We don’t really put in the work. We don’t have that, focus and discipline.
Scott: I have a couple answers. So one, I think it’s that people have lots of interests. And so there’s a grass is greener effect. As soon as you start getting into something, something else catches your eye and you’re like, Ooh, no, I’d rather do
that. Instead. Second thing is that learning is hard and I think it is hard in a very fundamental and unavoidable way that our brains are kind of.
Effort minimizing machines. And so if there’s a way you can do something without learning, then the rains, let them do that instead because learning it’s a difficult, costly kind of activity mentally. Like it requires you to reorganize concepts, to learn things by heart, to have lots of experience, to struggle, to do these things.
And obviously, you got to fine tune that difficulty level, so you can get into actually getting a grasp on things. But I definitely think the, idea here is that a lot of times we avoid learning because, , again, if there’s a way to do it without learning, then that sort of the path of least resistance.
And so really order to do any learning, You have to kind of love it. It’s sorta like running, right? , exercise is good for us. No doubt about that, but just our basic hard wiring is it, if you can get somewhere walking, you walk, you don’t run. Right?
Like that’s just how we’re built. And so similarly, if you can get somewhere without learning, you do it without learning and you, don’t actually master what you want to master. And so I think it requires a certain mindset and discipline to push yourself do something, to run. And it’s the same way with learning.
I think you have to have some sort of mindset of like, yeah, this is going to be difficult and I’m going to have to put in the work. But I might be able to do something cool. There’ll be able to experience something that I hadn’t otherwise. So I think that drive to be there.
Terry: Yeah. it’s all running. I think, because I guess if you think about it from a species perspective, we, got ahead because we’re better at doing more with less we’re strategically lazy. We’re looking for those advantages, but we only get ahead because of the people that actually go out and try something new and do something hard.
And then we kind of, get to enjoy spoils of their efforts. Aren’t we.
Scott: I think that for many of us, once we reach adulthood we get very comfortable, right. , you have your job, you have your family, you have your friends, you have your things that you like to do. Your hobbies, the things that you spend your time doing, and that hits an equilibrium.
And you’re good at that. And maybe you’re not going to hit mastery in any of those things. You just kind of stabilize, but you feel comfortable. You kind of settle in on that. And so the idea of doing anything. Shift. So you, add a new hobby that you’re totally bad at when you start or shift to doing something different in your career, or you take on some new challenge, these involve upsetting that equilibrium, they involve putting yourself in some situations that may be, you don’t feel as confident you don’t feel as competent with.
And that’s what learning is. And so the more we can kind of embrace that and desire that in our lives, I think that makes it easier for us learn. I think the more you kind of want to keep things the same all the time that’s a tendency. that we have that can also go against learning.
Terry: definitely. I found these to be really instructive in terms of when I do set out to learn something new, there’s a project I’m working on right now. very clear. I know what I need to accomplish. And then this is all kind of worked backwards from there and a lot of your principles. I just find myself intuitively following these principles now.
So your nine principles are meta-learning focus, directness drilling, retrieval, feedback, retention, intuition, and experimentation.
I would love to just quickly go through each of those in just a high level. And I don’t want to talk about a couple that I think are really obviously now space. So from a meta-learning perspective, like what is that?
Scott: Well meta-learning is the idea of first doing some research to map out what it is that you want to learn. How does it work? What do you have to do? So there’s a couple of ways you can think about that. One is through talking to other people. So I think in a career space is particularly important because often you don’t know what you need to learn, so you want to get promoted, but you don’t know what you need to be good at.
And so talking to people who got promoted, that’s the way to do that. Or you’re starting a business. You need to kind of like, well, what, should I do to get started? You’ve got to talk to people. And the other way of thinking about it is, especially for big topics, like learning a language, learning a new skill taking a class it’s often to spend some time preliminarily to figure out what is the structure of the subject.
So I make a very crude bake breakdown in the book where I talk about facts, concepts, and skills, facts, things you need to memorize concepts, things you need to understand. And I’m actually, I call them procedures, but procedures are things that you need to do as skills is another word for that. The idea here is that you can see kind of which sets of tools might be relevant and what the sort of central difficulty of the topic would be based on your understanding of that.
So in a language, one of the major challenges is how do you learn the words for everything in a new language, right. But it could also be procedural. It could also be like, oh, pronunciation is going to be really hard. Or it could be even conceptual that like, okay, this, language has this like weird grammatical concept that doesn’t exist in English and I’m going to have to like wrap my head around it.
you could also shift, like you could think about it. Something like learning physics is like majority is concepts. It’s, sort of understanding some deep principles. Seeing lots of instances of them seeing lots of different ways that can apply as opposed to just like memorizing the formula.
And so once you sort of see. it’s like, then you can sort of see which tools will apply. And so in the later parts of the book, I talk about things that work for each of those surgeons have domains and they can be kind of starting points for brainstorming. Okay. What’s going to be my studying approach or how am I going to tackle this?
Terry: I think, ,
having read the book that chapter really hit home for me
because, , when you get interested in something, like you said, you got the shiny object
syndrome, you could just sort of tend to jump in and you might jump in at a point where that doesn’t really suit you at all, and maybe you’re setting yourself up to fail.
And then, so I think this, principle in particular is so important. And I think when we’re talking about learning and learning money, actually, how to learn money is really important.
And it’s essentially what, we do is like, this is how to learn money. Because if you don’t, you can kind of, stay in your own little bubble for
years and years and years collecting facts, but not necessarily understanding concepts or doing any procedures.
So it’s, quite important principle, I think.
Scott: Yeah. And I think something that you have to balance. there’s always the people who, just collect books on the topic and they don’t actually get to practicing. So it can, be a fine line, but because of the way that I sort of structure things, which is around these projects, I usually try to do sort of a minimum amount of work before the project begins.
So it was going to be a month long project. I’d probably want to spend a couple hours on the Sunday before I start at the minimum. If it’s going to be a year long project, maybe I’m spending a couple of months, like getting my ducks in a row, just like, okay, what am I actually going to do here? And this isn’t to say that you never do any learning in this phase, but it’s just to say that there’s a lot of things.
Are probably useful to test out ahead of time. So one of the big things I like to focus on is if I’m going to be doing anything that requires some serious work is like testing out the schedule. everyone says, oh, I’ll do this 10 hours a week. And then you do one week and you do three hours. And you’re like, okay, actually, I’m not doing
I’m not going to hit any of these milestones. , these are good things to find out early on, rather than like committing yourself to some effort that this isn’t going to work.
that’s good. Cause it kind of leads me into the next
one. We were talking about focus there and we talked about how people don’t want to do the work. What’s one of the best practices or techniques you’ve seen or you’ve used that helps you to actually go, oh, I’m going to carve out this time
to put time in, invest time into this project.
Scott: Well, so I think there’s different ways you can invest time. my favorite approach and what I think is important to stress is that it’s very difficult to do serious learning projects, kind of in the background. And I think that’s how a lot of people want to approach it. They’re kind of like, , I’ll listen to this while I’m cooking dinner or do this kind of thing.
And that’s fine for some things, don’t get me wrong. Like you can listen to a podcast, you can listen to this podcast. You can listen to a book making dinner in the background, but for a lot of things that require some difficulty, you can actually have to set aside some time. And so there’s different ways you can do it.
One of them is to just find some chunks in the day or the week that are relatively. Stable, they’re less likely to get interrupted. So that could be, , first thing in the morning is one that I’ve found a lot of people have success with. So you, wake up before you have to get the breakfast and kids ready, you put in an hour.
Another can be right after work. So some people that’s, what they’ll do is they’ll just push their working day, another hour back another time, okay, Sunday morning, I can put three or four hours in and I can talk about it. And wife or spouse can handle the kids for that moment or this kind of thing.
And. the key thing is, is not that it has to be huge amounts of time, but I think that you need to be aware of how much time you’re putting in and that that execution has to be there because I think the problem is that you design a project that requires 15 hours a week. You only put in four hours a week, and then it’s just a slog you’re frustrated, whereas it’s much better to scope the project so that four hours a week will actually get you where you want to go.
And so I think that that can be challenge too, is how do you pick the right scope? Because I think we
naturally incline ourselves to very large scopes of projects. I want to be fluent in French. But if you’re only willing to put in an hour a week, then fluency and French has got a long way off, but you could maybe get to a point where you could have like really short conversation with someone.
And so that’s like a kind of like attainable target that you could work toward.
Terry: you’ve got to be realistic about what time you can put in and then scale, your ambitions to that first time you look at the schedule first.
Let me talk a lot about Parkinson’s
law if you’re not proactive around setting at that time, it just gets kind of gets eaten up by low priority tasks.
a critical one. We
Scott: , another one that I think is like not underrated is just a lot of us , we have some chunk at the end of the day where we just add that’s where I like kind of zone out and just play on my phone on social media for an hour. Right. I’m not trying to say that that’s necessarily bad, but if you live a busy life, if you’re like me, you and you find like, okay, I actually only have that one hour a day.
people often think that there’ll be too exhausted. Like, oh, there’s no way I could do that. But I think once you get into the habit of it, you just realize that it’s not actually that doing that too difficult. It’s rather that you just have this kind of poll to doing this low effort activity.
And so if you can get in the habit of doing it, if you do it regularly especially if it’s something that really interests you, it can often be a lot more rewarding. So, , the person who does the kind of creative hobby, like painting or woodworking or something like this, they’re often more satisfied at the end of the day than the person who’s just like doom scrolling, Twitter or whatever it is.
Terry: Absolutely. It’s interesting. I actually learned this years ago and it was just a complete fluke. I moved into an apartment with a friend of mine. We were in university and we kind of furnished the house and the only thing that was not furnished was neither of us had to take.
and neither of us wanted to buy a TV. So we had this Mexican standoff for about probably two months. And in that two months, all of our, I guess our instincts changed around what we did with the time. and our family in that year, I taught myself how to play guitar. I did all these different activities that I just wouldn’t otherwise have done because it’s just the algorithm in the mind is it’s this time at the end of the day, then you do
this. But if you don’t have that option, sometimes you can actually start to see, actually there is plenty of energy here. You would just start really putting it to
Scott: Well, , this is not really a central point of this book, but I worked with Cal Newport. Who’s the author of deep work, conditional minimalism. And we had a course called life of focus. And this was a central idea in that. And, we were sort of talking about this , we’ve worked with a lot of students through the course.
And one of the things that you find is that there’s a lot of. resistance to like giving up any kind of passive entertainment. And again, I’m not trying to say, like, if you really love playing the video game, you’re really like watching a particular show. Like I watch TV shows too. It’s it’s fine.
It’s not to say that , I’m like one of those people that you should never watch TV, but I think part of the problem is that people get really sucked into it. And I don’t want to say it’s an addiction, but there’s a little bit of a kind of Resistance when that’s what you do all the time to doing anything that requires a little bit more effort or is a little bit slower.
And a big side effect of that is that a lot of these projects that you have to learn something to improve yourself, to, do something active, creative, the things that you always imagine yourself doing, but you don’t actually do those never happened. And what you have is that you’ve watched, , tons and tons of every TV show and it’s hundreds of hours of that.
But, you never learned to play guitar. You never learned Spanish. You never did do that thing that would improve your career and take it to where you want to be. And so my position here is not to be the scold, but simply to point out that this is often an opportunity that if you can adjust your habits in that regard, if you can shift so that, oh, okay.
Actually, I don’t just, , flip on this at the end of the day. I’m like, okay, all right, I’m going to start doing this other thing right now. You can actually get
Terry: Yeah. I get asked a lot of the time, cause I’m little bit obsessive and I kind of go down that rabbit hole as well. And people say, where do you find all this time? And I think one really simple rule has helped me is I don’t watch a TV show until like 10 people tell me it’s awesome. Because, the way it’s built is , I’ll take you to the end of this. And then it’s an open loop at the
end. And so the dope, main part of your brain is going all right, now I’ve got to watch that again. Now I’m looking for that. That’s all I want to be in to that.
So I remember like game of
Thrones, That was such.
For so many people. And you think about the opportunity cost of the amount of time spent watching that. it’s not that it’s wrong, but if you find that you’re always searching for a TV show, but it’s not even necessarily adding anything, it’s easy to just reduce some of that and get a whole lot of that time back to be able to pursue some
Scott: I’ll speak for myself because I think everyone needs to find what are the things that like, oh, no, no, no, but this is bliss and I don’t want to give it up versus, okay, this is just something I do to kill time. And for me, one of the big ones was this is about a year ago. I completely stopped using Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, any of those now I have a RSS feed, so it’s like kind of my little like hack through it.
So I do subscribe to some YouTube channels that way. some of the ones that I really liked, I’ll still get some things. So I’m not trying to say I’m a purist here, but what I found was that a lot of social media, because it’s engineered to try to maintain your attention. They’re very compelling products to just, oh my God, I wasted so much time on this.
And what I found for me in particular, in the case of Twitter, was that I found it was making me a really negative person. Like there was so much. anger and animosity there. And it was like making me anxious I just realized, Yeah, I could try. Coordinates off to a small part of my day, but I’ll just be a happier person if I’m not on this and it’s been way better for my life.
And the funny thing is is that once you get rid of it and you start doing other things , you start doing some of these things that you really find valuable, the feeling you have is like, how did I ever have time for doing that as much as I did, that’s the takeaway you get.
And so I think that’s something that’s worth, at least considering for people. So if you feel like I have no time to do any of the things that I want to do, but you somehow find time to like, watch all the latest shows and you’re scrolling Instagram just try for like a month, put them off and just sort of see what happens, you can always bring them back. like, that was terrible idea. I had much more fun on YouTube. Then you don’t have to listen to me, but you might find that when you give yourself space to think about it, you’re like, what, actually, I want to do these things that are deeply meaningful to me and not.
hear about the latest political scandal or the new, the latest thing that everyone’s getting outraged about. want to do things that are actually gonna matter for my life.
Terry: totally. like you say, they’re one time decisions. Like you can reverse the
decision so you can experiment with like, what works for you. And that’s just a rule that works for me where I’m like, I’m not going to be watching a TV show
unless so many people tell me that.
It’s awesome. Otherwise I just prefer to watch movie, cause I know it’s a start and a finish there’s not going to be any. , watch episode 3, 4, 5, 6 in a row, like those blocks of time of massive.
Scott: another thing that I think is also important to state in the book, I talk a lot about like self-directed learning one reason if you have a really hard time carving out time committing to a class can be useful because it creates a social obligation to do it. And so that I think is one real benefit of physical classes is like, even if the teaching quality was terrible, it’s like, oh, I paid for this.
I signed up for it. I have to go at 8:00 PM on Thursday nights or something like that. You make it work. Whereas the, okay, I’m going to set this in my own schedule, but if I’m tired or, but if I’m, then I don’t. So I think developing a self-awareness is good to have understanding of what conditions you tend to put in effort.
And if one of your preconditions, is that okay? No, I need to have some kind of structured external commitment that will force me to do this. Then seeking those opportunities can also be.
I think that’s so underwrited like, so underwriter, just having that , we’re social
beings, right? We’ll let ourselves down and we’ll lie to
ourselves, but we don’t want to let other people down. we want to maintain our image more than we actually want our thing. So you can actually reverse engineer or you can sort of harness that instinct and make it work for you.
If you use accountability in the right
Scott: people have a strong aversion to wasting money. I found that it’s also like a weird kind of like be, have no problem wasting all their time. And if you total that up, that would be worth way more than any like course or book you spend. But like the, oh, I bought this class and it’s, , equivalent of like, , $40 a session.
And if I skip it, I’m going to feel like an idiot, that can actually be a motivator. And so I do think that, even in a self directed learning context making use of some of these leverage points as I’ll call them can often be beneficial, but there’s other ways you can do it too. I think, , even if you just like commit to doing some kind of.
The thing at the end, , even if you’re doing this offsite, it’s like, okay, I know I got to do it because this is going to be coming up. I think that is also can work as well.
Terry: Yeah, let’s talk about directness.
This is the next principle. a real thing that we see as well, where people want to kind of dance around the topic. You want to just collect information, but you actually don’t want to get into the doing part of it.
And you resist
that part. Why do you think this happens?
Scott: Well doing is harder than just dancing on a topic so that sort of a straightforward answer. I think there’s emotional resistance to it, but I think also part of it is that in some ways we can have kind of the wrong mental model of how the mind works. And so there can be a kind of idea that , what’s important is that I just do something with my mind and then that will enrich me rather than the idea that no, skill and ability is built out of quite specific facts and procedures habits and things that you have.
And so the idea that I would espouse is that it, , definitely learning about a field can be beneficial, but if you find it gets in the way of actual. Taking steps to practice it or doing the hard thing. Then sometimes you need to balance that out. So, , the example I would give, if you were to deal with like language learning or something like this, and if you have a bunch of sort of textbooks or CD courses gathering dust on your bookshelf, then the step would be okay.
I’ve got to actually do one of these before I buy anymore. Or if you’re doing the CD and book course, but you’re not actually speaking it. You’re not actually using it in any way that it’s like, okay, I actually have to have a conversation with the tutor before I do another one of these.
And so I think that can be is sort of a way to bind yourself, to actually practicing what you want to get good at. And I think the practice is so important. There’s so much of learning is just , you learn about something, but then you apply it, you apply it, you get feedback. And the ratio is often really skewed.
It takes two minutes to learn about an idea and it takes 20 years to get really, really good at it. And I think that often we’re in that case where , we just want to, oh, this is fun little trivia, or this is like a, , YouTube explainer video or they just, , that’s good, but are you actually gonna do it?
Are you actually going to implement some of those ideas? And so my ideal is some kind of, there’s a loop, right? Where you, you spend time practicing and then you spend time learning. You spend time practicing, you spend time learning. it’s just to recognize that often that it gets arrested, gets stuck at that actual doing part.
And you can just spend a lot of time logging hours, but you’re not actually doing the practice here, skimming over the notes. You’re not doing the practice tests here, , flipping through
the flashcards. You’re not actually speaking to someone in language you’re trying to learn. You’re reading another book about investing while you haven’t opened the account yet.
these are things
that can definitely be in.
Terry: Yeah. And we always talk about gathering info versus building intelligence intelligence is the accumulation of your experiences And what works for you. Whereas like what works for others is less valuable than knowing what doesn’t work for you, because you can figure out how you learn, how things work , in the context of your own situation.
And the only way you do that is actually by doing things.
Scott: Yeah. And I think, the doing part of it it’s essential because so much of what we’re actually trying to get at is a kind of skill. So there are topics where they’re like more heavily knowledge-based. And so even if there is some kind of downstream doing, like, you’re going to be better off reading a lot about it.
Like history is one of those, if I were trying to learn something. abstract subject. I definitely need to do lots of studying, but I think we tend to underrate how much doing is involved in actually getting good at things. So any kind of skill that involves, , manipulating something, you gotta do it.
You can’t just think about it, but even things that are intellectual manipulation. So, , the classic example would be like doing math or something, , you can just read a description of it, but it’s only by seeing tons of examples working through it, , building up more and more complicated.
Like that’s the only way you get good at it. Right? Like you can’t just assume that, oh, you read some summary of it and you’re going to get good at it. And I think , you have to decide what it is that you’re trying to get good at. And so this is sort of the message behind the directness chapter is that.
Very often we pick maybe not the, exactly the right thing that we’re trying to learn when you started, like, ah, I’ll just kind of do this and it’s not really what we’re trying to get good at. And so I think that’s an important factor, but even more basic than that, it’s just that you need to do lots of practice in application.
Terry: I totally agree. And I think it’s. Such a valuable thing to learn and learn about yourself, that you can get better at something by practicing. And like you said, I think with the MIT challenge, you unlock different levels of confidence within yourself to be able to take on new challenges when you go, actually I can push through that hard part.
And beyond that hard parts where all the good stuff is, I always think about surfing, right?
I go out surfing and I’m surfing with like 50 year olds that absolutely, 10 times better than me. And the difference is practice. And I’m like, they get to have more fun on the same wave that I am because of practice.
It’s not because of anything else. It’s just because of the reps, the amount of time they’ve had in the ocean. and I always kind of remind myself of that. The only difference between me and them is the reps and they get to have more fun because of their reps.
Scott: yeah, think definitely for skills like that, there’s no substitute for doing a lot of practice.
Terry: what I’d love to do is just quickly skip through to, feedback. And I would encourage you if you’re listening to read the book and dive into each of these chapters, but the most valuable ones that I wanted to sort of talk to you about was meta-learning directness and feedback, because these are critical for us in the financial education space.
So this is a really interesting one and I’d love to get your view on this. I think a lot of people, and this is myself included before I started this whole journey, before we started the business, all those kinds of things, you are learning in a vacuum, you’re being the rugged individual. You’re gathering a lot of information and reading a lot of investing books and your resisting the doing, and you’re also resisting getting help.
And the reason you’re resisting getting help cause you, actually don’t want to know the truth. You don’t want to know where you actually at what’s actually happening and, to do. So from your perspective, like where do you think this resistance comes from and what have you seen is the best ways to get around it?
Scott: Yeah. So feedback, I think is obviously an essential part of learning. You need to get some correction what you’re doing and there’s different kinds of feedback. Like I talk about in the book there’s from full on corrective feedback. So you did this, you should’ve done this to kind of like feedback that’s about aspects of your performance to even just sort of like, yes, no, but you have no idea of why.
And I think that being in a rich feedback environment is always better than one. That’s a poor feedback environment. If you have access to a coach or a teacher, mentor, tutor, apprentice type situation that will obviously help as well, if you can get sort of that guidance. But I think part of it is recognizing also when you have to make those adjustments yourself, like when you have to , figure out what it is that you’re not doing.
Right. I think the, main problem with feedback is, very often that just as you said, there’s a discomfort to getting that kind of bad grade or to doing something and failing for the first time, or I don’t know how this person’s going to respond. I don’t know what I want to do here.
So I’m going to prepare a bit more and I think it’s very natural for us to want to deal with potential anxiety with extra preparation or extra sort of work on the back end. That’s just a normal human reaction. However, it can be inefficient if that preparation just is furthering you down the wrong path.
right way to approach it is to be. willing to put yourself in situations where you can get feedback, you can kind of fail early, so to speak and make those adjustments. And so it requires a certain type of mindset. I think that’s sometimes difficult to cultivate because we want to present ourselves as being competent, flawless people and to be a kind of, oh, I’m going to fail first is to sort of present yourself as like, , an idiot or present yourself as someone who’s not competent.
And I think the more you can lean into just embracing that view of yourself, that’s more beneficial. So, , we didn’t really talk about it that much. And the language learning project we did. One of the things that I think was our biggest asset is that in our social interactions, the tenor of it was like, yeah, we’re like trying to do this thing where we’re only speaking this language and look, yeah, we know we’re bad at it, but like, Hey, you know, let’s,, try it out.
And that kind of attitude, I think really helped us as opposed to if we were, oh, I’m going to do it flawlessly. And I’m so smart. And like that would have really held us back, I think, in that moment. that can be the case too, when you’re starting out the people who are the most unafraid to ask dumb questions the most yeah.
I don’t know anything about this, but why is it like this? Right. Those are the people that the feedback and then they’re able to improve. So there is really an emotional component to it.
Terry: I would 100% agree with that last statement you made
lucky. if you go into it with a playful mentality, like you are playing a game, like you’re a player in a game, you worry less about status because it’s just a game. And I think that’s the thing that gets in the way is status.
what stops people from accepting and seeking feedback is a perception or a perceived huge drop in status. But if you see this as just another
project, another game that you’re trying to accomplish, then status drops away and you can put success before status. And that to me is the biggest thing.
If you’re playing a game, you’re trying to succeed before you care about what you look
like. And that’s a huge thing. We see the people that come through and that do the best, that, improve the fastest. Exactly what you just said is how they look at it. They’re like, Hey, , I don’t know if this part it’s sorted.
It’s fine. let’s figure it out. I don’t even know, like, tell me what the answer to this is. they don’t really not too concerned around that side of it. And I think it is that playful manner.
So the other thing I wanted to talk to you about was just more sort of philosophically given what you’ve learned, what you’ve seen. there seems to be this back and forth between people that are like, , the Peter Drucker, you can’t build on weakness, but you can build on strength versus, , do you work on your weaknesses?
Do you improve yourself in this way? What’s your lane? Like, how do you see that? So I think some people, they say, I’m just going to get excellent. What I’m good at, and I’m gonna forget everything else versus You’re kind of talking about, , drilling on weaknesses here and working on things that you’re not as good at within the learning process, but I’m interested in, in terms of learning topics.
Do you say I’m weak at this? I want to get better at this, or do you think no. Become world-class at
Scott: Well, I think it’s very important to understand the logic behind it because I don’t think there’s any, in compatibility at all. Drucker and many of the people who talk about building on strengths, I would say there’s two major rationales for that. One the rationale of specialization.
So it’s clearly the case that economically rewards a crew for greater competence on the things you’re really good at. Then, I’m going to make a lot more money and have more success if I get a little better at writing than if I get even a lot better at let’s say, like playing the harmonica, right?
So from a strictly economic point of view, specialization is hugely important. The second thing is that we’re often dealing in these sort of settings with large collaborative environments where You can trade off your weaknesses in a team setting. So for instance, I have a small team right now that helps me run this business.
And some of the people in my team are good at things that I’m not that good at. So I’m not a very meticulous person, but I have an editor now, and I have a person who make sure that everything that has to go on exactly on schedule for any of our programs And that can let me focus on ideas and big vision and strategy.
The things that I feel like I am a bit better at. And so the goal should not be to sand yourself off into this perfect sphere without any rough edges. However, and this is important in the case of learning when you cannot outsource or delegate or. Remove some aspect of your life. Then it is often the weaknesses that are the biggest problem.
It’s not the strengths. So the logic totally reverses. If you can’t specialize it a or delegate it or do this kind of thing. So if you have a great career and terrible relationships, you can’t use the great career to trade off and like, someone else will handle the relationship for you. your spouse and wife is still going divorce.
You, you know what I mean? Like it’s, still going to be that same problem. Similarly, if you are in a situation where, oh yeah, I’m really good at this, but I’m really bad at something else. And that other thing you can’t get rid of, then yeah, it’s going to be an issue in a skill level.
This is also important because many parts of a skill have to work together. You have to be good at all of them. You can’t just be good at one part. So you can’t only know the words in a language, but not be able to pronounce them, not know the grammar, not like you have to be able to do all those things or you’re not fluent or you’re not able to speak.
And so. don’t think it’s the case that, you need to be perfect in all your weaknesses, but there’s very often a case where those will be the bottleneck for performance. And so, as like in my own case, as a writer, it’s not possible to separate me writing about the ideas versus kind of having the ideas or thinking about the ideas.
unless I’m like working with a collaborator and I’m just like typing their thoughts. If I’m going to write, I need to have both. And so if I’m really bad at research, but I’m really good at writing, beautiful pros or vice versa, they’re both going to affect the net output of my writing.
And very often in a competitive space, it’s going to be the weakest point of that. That’s going to drag me down. Now. There is some continuum between. Skills that can be perfectly traded off and specialize in things that, that hinder each other. And so I admit there is some gray area between the two, but I think the more you can keep that as your mental rubric of like, when that would make sense, then I think the confusion get cleared up because sometimes you’re absolutely right.
I get asked about when people say focusing your strengths and you’re saying fix the weakness and really depends on, how the interact with your other skills or your other areas of life.
that makes total sense to me. Like as a followup to that, though, this is exactly the way that we use it as well, in terms of the business, we outsource the stuff we’re not good
at, , same thing, editors. These people can help us do all these other things. But my question is, how do you get there?
Do you get that by building on your strengths and then you start outsourcing all those other things. And so you’re kind of either ignoring it to build on your strengths and get very good at something to be able to have the resources, to then outsource, delegate, automate all those kinds of things.
Or do you just kind of work really hard in the beginning to be able to do what you can to be able to get there and then start outsourcing delegating all those
Scott: Oh, that’s a good question. in my own case, I definitely feel like I was more of a generalist when I started and I become more of a specialist over time. And so I think that’s a little bit of the entrepreneur’s dilemma that an entrepreneur always has to be a bit more of a generalist than is maybe economically ideal, just because they don’t have the scale yet to handle it.
I think as well in early stage ventures, it’s often hard to cleanly, separate parts. There’s a real effort that goes in figuring out the business model and then getting processes that support it. And you can’t create the processes if you don’t have the business model yet.
And so there can be this sort of bootstrapping problem where you’re the one doing all these things that you’re not really that good at just to get something going. And then you get someone good. Now the, sort of one way people avoid that is by like raising lots of money and then they’re going to hire tons of people and do that.
I think that this may be more of a bootstrappers problem than someone who’s oh, we raised $20 million or whatever. And so we’re going to have a staff of 50 and, , the logo is going
to be perfectly designed. Don’t worry about that. , as
opposed to like, I’ll throw something in Photoshop or I’ll pay some guy, a 50 bucks to come up with something that I can use right now.
But I think this is a problem for some people. and I think certainly, , when you start off in your career too, you don’t have as much work you can delegate. You don’t have as many things you can just say no to you don’t have that much autonomy. And so very often you are, well, I have to do this, so I have to figure it out.
And so I do think that there’s often greater generality, even in big companies when you’re starting out, because you’re not able to be like, yeah, I’m crap at this. I need help. Or I need someone to support me in this. But as I said again, I think the. Strengths weaknesses issue is also complicated by the fact that many skills interact.
And so it’s difficult to separate clean business strategy from having any understanding of the technology G of what you’re doing. So if you’re, , the business guy in the company and you have no idea how anything works that you’re actually doing for the product, it’s hard to formulate business strategies because, , you don’t understand the limitations or how much work it will be to do this feature or, what’s easy and what’s hard.
And so in those cases, it can often be useful to do like a crash course to get the basics so that you’re not totally handicapping your ability to make business decisions. And so I don’t think even if you reach a high level CEO or whatever of, , some major firm and you can get an army of assistance, you’re totally off the hook from improving any weaknesses.
Very often. Even those people that have stuff they can’t delegate.
that’s where this framework becomes really useful. Right.
Because that’s kind of the way I approach it now is like, this is something I’ve got to get on top of. Here’s how I’m going to do it. That’s the operating system I’m going to
use. And then that’s just add time, but might thank you so much for coming on the show.
I really appreciate you coming on sharing your, thoughts, your wisdom, your lessons. What are you working on right now?
Scott: Yeah. So I’m in the very early stages a new book, kind of touching on some of these topics of the emotions involved with learning and the kind of process of figuring things out often on like more practical kinds of projects than just strictly academic things like the MIT challenge or learning languages.
And this is something that, , I’ve been interested in in quite a while because, , as we’ve shared, a lot of the difficulties of learning is not just having the right cognitive process, but having the right mindset and having the right to confidence and having the ways of dealing with many of the very often emotional problems that come up along the way.
Terry: I’m forward to that when are you thinking of that? One’s going to be
Scott: Oh, that’ll be a while. be surprised how long it takes to write these books, but I’ll definitely be announcing it on my blog. I think the ultra learning from start to finish was like nearly four years. So they take a while,
but the, between going to the editor and proposals and back and forth, but sure to announce it on my website.
So if anyone wants to check that out and go to Scott H young.com and that also has my, podcast and my blog is over 1500 articles there on the topic of learning and motivation and
Terry: Yeah. Great articles to read a few last week to sort of, sort of catch up on where you’ve been at and yeah, some really good blogs on there. So I
highly encourage you if you’re listening to this and you’re interested in what Scott’s been talking about go and spend some time on the site. You will learn so much about learning and also probably yourself as well.
And you probably are going to find me on Twitter. Are we
Scott: Well, I do have social media accounts, but they’re not managed by me right now. So we post my articles there. So if you want to follow Instagram and Twitter, wherever you can get updates from me there as well.
Terry: But thanks again, mate. Really appreciate your time and All the best with the new book.
Scott: All right.