Would you like to learn how to speak a new language fast? How about learning to code or write sales copy? Perhaps you were promoted and want to improve your leadership skills faster?
Canadian Scott Young is the author of Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career.
The book represents the culmination of Young’s approach to learning new skills rapidly. Young completed a MIT challenge in 2011-2012, whereby he learned the entire four-year curriculum for computer science in one year without taking any classes.
Later, Young and a roommate traveled around the world for a year without speaking English. Immersing themselves in the languages of each country, they learned how to speak Spanish, French, Portuguese, Korean and Mandarin. After this trip, Young taught himself how to draw professional portraits.
Condensing 10,000 Hours
According to writers like Malcolm Gladwell, mastering a new skill can take up to 10,000 hours. That’s more than one person can possibly achieve in four years, let alone one, no matter how focused or productive.
Young’s approach to learning involves focusing intensely on a single discipline, taking on challenges and getting feedback fast. If you don’t have 10,000 hours, Young recommends aspiring ultralearners reframe what mastery of a skill looks like.
He explained that almost anyone can learn how to “have conversations” and “travel effortlessly” in five or even 10 languages. However, becoming proficient enough to write a PhD dissertation in another language requires living in a country for a decade or more.
“If mastery [means] something less ambitious…that you are competent with a skillset, then it’s totally possible for people to learn dozens or more skills,” he says.
Advancing At Work Faster
Learning new skills like coding or even copywriting rapidly could help you advance at work. In Ultralearning, Young features Colby Durant. An intern at a web design firm, she wanted to learn how to write sales copy. So Durant asked herself why she wanted to learn this new skill.
“Usually, you’re not [trying] to learn copywriting in a vacuum. It’s for some purpose,” Young says. “I always suggest starting with, ‘Where do you actually want to use this skill?’”
A good ultralearner is motivated to succeed and excited by the project. Durant read multiple books on the subject and sought out opportunities to apply what she’d learned and get feedback from her accomplished peers.
“Often we’re not just trying to learn something on its own. We’re learning it because we think it will help with something else,” she told Young.
Later, Durant received a promotion for her extra work. That said, it’s not possible to learn every skill fast simply by consuming books and taking courses and taking on side projects. Young also suggests interviewing people who are further along in a discipline than you are.
“We want to talk to someone who has this skill and get a sense of how they acquired it and get a sense of how it impacts their goals,” she said.
Aspiring ultralearners can find people to interview at work, conferences, via social media and in online forums. Interviewing an expert should also help you chart the progression of your learning from novice to competent.
A chief marketing officer, for example, might reveal some of the mistakes they made early in their career and what they value in new hires. From there, you can go out into the marketplace with a more refined skill set.
“Many people, particularly introverts among us, recoil at the idea of reaching out and asking a stranger for advice. They worry they’ll be rejected, ignored or even yelled at for presuming to take up a person’s time,” Young wrote.
“This rarely happens,” he said. “Most experts are willing to offer advice and are flattered by the thought that someone wants to learn from their experience.”
Ultimately, learning is a lifelong pursuit, and deciding what skills you want to acquire is a question worth asking at every stage of your career.