Learn Fast and Make Things

Jared Nielsen
5 min readFeb 1, 2021
Learn fast and make things

What are you learning this year?

Perhaps we need to reframe the question: how are you learning this year?

Did you make resolutions to learn X or build Y with new hotness Z?

How’s it going so far?

Most people don’t stick with their resolutions. Something like 80% of people drop their Gregorian calendar goals by Chinese New Year.


We can boil it down to two factors:

  • the resolution is too ambitious or too ambiguous or both
  • the resolution focuses on product, not process

These are two sides of the same coin.

If we clearly define our goal and determine a realistic scope, we can focus on the process.

If we focus on the process, we can achieve ambitious and ambiguous goals.

“That makes for a nice tweet,” I hear you say. “But I need to know this now!”

How do we focus on process and quickly learn new skills?

How do we learn fast and make things?

Learn Fast and Make Things with Ultralearning

In his book of the same title, Scott Young defines ultralearning as:

A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.

Young describes the pursuits of several “ultralearners”, including himself, who set out to learn new and challenging topics on short timelines, such as computer science degrees, public speaking, and foreign languages. If this sounds extreme to you, you would be right. But Young counters our initial skepticism:

Although the ultralearners are an extreme group of people, this approach to things holds potential for normal professionals and students. What if you could create a project to quickly learn the skills to transition to a new role, project, or even profession? …What if you could learn a new language, simulate a university degree program, or become good at something that seems impossible to you right now?

Yes, what if?

Why Do We Want to Learn Fast and Make Things?

The changing pace of technology is fast and to succeed, we need to learn how to learn at the same speed.

According to Young, Ultralearning is…

…a potent skill for dealing with a changing world. The ability to learn hard things quickly is going to become increasingly valuable, and thus it is worth developing to whatever extent you can, even if it requires some investment first.”

We can divide our need to learn fast between two primary motivations:

  • professional
  • personal

If we’re lucky, these are one and the same. Let’s look at them separately.

Ultralearning for Professional Growth

We want to use ultralearning for work because, according to Young, “…rapidly learning hard skills can have a greater impact than years of mediocre striving on the job.” There are three main cases for the application of ultralearning strategies:

  1. accelerating the career you have
  2. transitioning to a new career
  3. cultivating a hidden advantage in a competitive world

Young argues that there are three factors that drive a need for us to adopt ultralearning strategies in our professional lives:

  • Average is over
  • Tuition is too high
  • New frontiers in learning

Average Is Over

Ubiquitous computing and automation create a “skill polarization”, in which the middle ground disappears and jobs are now divided between high- and low-skilled categories. Moving into, or even staying in, the high-skilled category requires constant learning and specialization.

Tuition is Too High

Somewhat related to the above, a polarization occurred with higher education: the cost of tuition increased, but the skills required to succeed in today’s economy decreased. A college degree is no longer a guarantee.

New Frontiers in Learning

Anyone, anywhere, can learn almost anything using resources that are freely available online. According to Young, “…for those who know how to use technology wisely, it is the easiest time in history to teach yourself something new.”

Ultralearning for Personal Growth

On the flip side, we may want to use ultralearning for personal reasons because “…your deepest moments of happiness don’t come from doing easy things; they come from realizing your potential and overcoming your own limiting beliefs about yourself.”

How to Learn Fast and Make Things

The first step to learn anything fast is to find time.

Easier said than done, I know.

Young recognizes this dilemma and identifies three approaches to creating time for ultralearning projects:

  • Part-time projects, in which you wholly immerse yourself in the ultralearning project as though it were a part-time job.
  • Learning sabbaticals, in which you pursue ultralearning during gaps in work and school.
  • Reimagining existing learning efforts, in which you integrate ultralearning principles into the time and energy you already devote to learning.

Young then outlines nine principles for a successful ultralearning project:

  1. Metalearning: First Draw a Map. Start by learning how to learn the subject or skill you want to tackle. Discover how to do good research and how to draw on your past competencies to learn new skills more easily.
  2. Focus: Sharpen Your Knife. Cultivate the ability to concentrate. Carve out chunks of time when you can focus on learning, and make it easy to just do it.
  3. Directness: Go Straight Ahead. Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at. Don’t trade it off for other tasks, just because those are more convenient or comfortable.
  4. Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point. Be ruthless in improving your weakest points. Break down complex skills into small parts; then master those parts and build them back together again.
  5. Retrieval: Test to Learn. Testing isn’t simply a way of assessing knowledge but a way of creating it. Test yourself before you feel confident, and push yourself to actively recall information rather than passively review it.
  6. Feedback: Don’t Dodge the Punches. Feedback is harsh and uncomfortable. Know how to use it without letting your ego get in the way. Extract the signal from the noise, so you know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
  7. Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket. Understand what you forget and why. Learn to remember things not just for now but forever.
  8. Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up. Develop your intuition through play and exploration of concepts and skills. Understand how understanding works, and don’t recourse to cheap tricks of memorization to avoid deeply knowing things.
  9. Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone. All of these principles are only starting points. True mastery comes not just from following the path trodden by others but from exploring possibilities they haven’t yet imagined.

There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for ultralearning. You will need to adapt these principles to the needs of your project and map them to your timeline.

Learn fast and make things!

Want to level up your problem solving skills? I write a weekly newsletter about programming, problem solving and lifelong learning. Join now