Master Ultralearner Scott H. Young teaches us how to get out of our own way to become better learners.
Plus, more from our exclusive interview with Scott on learning, productivity, and fatherhood.
Welcome to another edition of ProductiveGrowth 🌱, monthly stories about productivity, leadership, motivation, and anything else that allows us to work less and achieve more.
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Learning, productivity, being an entrepreneur, and more, in the words of ‘Ultralearner’ Scott H. Young.
10 Tips for an awesome coffee meeting.
Measuring productivity is less important than managing it.
The world’s worst boss.
A leader’s list of mental health concerns at work.
Learning, productivity, being an entrepreneur, and more, in the words of ‘Ultralearner’ Scott H. Young.
A few weeks ago we had the pleasure of interviewing Scott H. Young. He’s an author, entrepreneur, and programmer who’s widely recognized for his self-led immersive learning experiences. As detailed in his 2019 book, Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career, Scott went a year without speaking English so he could learn to speak conversational Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin and Korean. Among his many other endeavors, he also completed MIT’s 4-year computer science curriculum in only one year.
Scott is a prolific writer with clever ideas. He’s been blogging since he was about 18-years-old, and fifteen years later, he still hasn’t stopped. We believe one of the reasons why Scott is so interesting is because he has made a personal point to write about what he enjoys — not necessarily what he thinks is going to resonate the most with his audience.
Young also happens to be close friends with Cal Newport and James Clear, two well-known productivity writers. The three of them started writing around the same time, and as Scott puts it, their friendship grew out of a shared connection about the topics of interest they were tackling.
Scott is currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He says it’s a challenge to describe his day job to people he first meets but explains that, “essentially, I'm just a blogger. I'm just a guy who started a website when he was in university and now gets paid to just write stuff and doodle little things there.”
Scott sat down on Zoom a few weeks ago and chatted with us about everything from Ultralearning - a strategy for aggressive, self-directed learning - to parenting. We found him so fascinating that we couldn’t fit his whole interview into a single issue. That’s why we’ve edited it to highlight our favorite parts here The unedited audio is available here:
On learning: When he was at university, Scott studied abroad for one year in the South of France. He wanted to learn the culture and language. To his surprise, he could have conversations in French after that year, but he says it never felt easy.
A year in another country seems like enough time to learn a whole new language, Scott explains, but it isn’t if you spend all of the time speaking mostly in your native tongue.
It wasn’t until later in his life when he started questioning how to learn things well and effectively. He developed the Ultralearning strategy, which in his own words, “is deep self-education to learn hard things in less time.” Scott realized it wasn’t necessarily about how much time you spend learning, but how you learn.
He wrote that strategy into a book called Ultralearning. It narrates, among other things, one of his most iconic immersive learning experiences, “The MIT challenge.”
After high school, Scott studied business at the University of Manitoba. But he would have preferred to study computer science. It simply felt like a more amenable subject, he says.
With that thought in mind, and with the hope of proving a more efficient way of learning, Scott took on MIT’s 4-year Computer Science undergraduate curriculum online in just one year — all without actually being enrolled at MIT.
Cultural impact on learning: Scott explains that sometimes stereotypes end up becoming some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps you think you need to become something or someone because of who you once were. This often happens when choosing majors, he says. It’s possible that if you were popular in high school, then you might end up studying business, because that's what you’re “supposed to do,” according to society’s standards.
The thing is that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it’s a cultural and social experience. For example, you might be better at a subject if you have friends who can explain it to you. Or you might be interested in studying the same thing as your parents because it feels familiar.
But the problem, explains Scott, is that, “we often have very narrow background experiences of things that we were good at and things that we like in our life. And we get these artificially constrained pictures of ourselves. ‘I can't learn a language’ — and the only reference for that is that I struggled at Spanish once in high school.”
Scott says, if we decide to change the environment and the way we learn, the outcome will be different. We just need to be open to “doubting how much we know about ourselves.” Once we do that, we’ll start to tear down the barriers we thought were limiting us.
On productivity: According to Scott, people tend to have a misconception about productivity. He says that people tend to think productivity is when you work really hard for many hours each week. In reality, it’s the opposite. The idea is to be more efficient in the work you do so you can get it done in less time.
Scott tells us the biggest reason he’s productive is not that he works all day, but because he works effectively. This means he has more time left to spend with his family.
He also keeps a regular daily routine that includes two deep work blocks: one in the morning for uninterrupted work and one in the afternoon with some breaks.
(For those who don’t know, deep work is a term popularized by Cal Newport, meaning, “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.”)
Scott also talked to us about setting goals. He thinks everyone should set impossible goals for themselves, but doing so could have two different outcomes: excelling at them or getting frustrated by them.
Goal setting has a paradoxical quality, Scott explains. You need to find a balance between goals that are impossible enough to motivate you, but not so unreachable that they’ll make you lose your motivation.
“If the goal becomes something you perceive to be impossible — if you think ‘I can't do this’ — you reject the goal, and you don't actually work on it. It just fails to function as an orienting device. However, if you think you can do something really ambitious, that kind of belief, justified or not, allows you to hold on to this goal — which is really high and hard— but you start working on it.”
Check-in with yourself. Are your goals motivating you? Or could they use some fine-tuning?
On planning: Being a creator can be a lonely road. You’re responsible for your own processes, work, and deadlines. Mess up in one of those areas and you will screw up the consistency.
When asked about whether planning can cause inaction rather than enabling work. Scott told us that since many projects are often over-budget or late, some people are of the opinion that planning is useless and is simply a form of procrastination. He agrees that this can be true for some, especially if people guard themselves by staying in the “planning stage” to avoid action.
However, he explains, planning is an active and arduous process. To Scott, “actually structuring what would need to happen for me to achieve a particular goal is a very useful exercise for gauging your commitment to the goal.” Yes, you’d probably still be over budget, but at least you can simulate where that’s going to happen. And that’s way more important than not knowing at all.
But, Scott continues, “I like to think about it as packing a suitcase. You don't need to have every single second of your itinerary planned, but if you're going to a cold country, you should have a parka packed.”
As we’ve mentioned in previous issues, planning is critical to every aspect of your life, but make sure you’re not using it as an excuse to avoid action.
On parenting: Scott became a father in February 2020. As a new dad himself, Steve - our editor founder and editor-in-chief - asked what advice Scott has for new fathers and how parenthood has changed the way he works.
Apart from stating that babies are extremely time-consuming, he says, “There's a value shift that’s also really hard to anticipate.” He explains that you can foresee your schedule changing, and how you’ll become sleep deprived. But what’s harder to predict is how your values and preferences will change.
He believes it’s because our imagination is limited, and we cannot know how we'll feel in the future.
“The real shift when you become a parent is that this thing in your life takes up so much time that is frustrating, and it is hard in lots of places. But you're gonna really want to do it. You can't imagine it before you get into it; that you're gonna be like, ‘Yep, this is the thing that's most important to me.’”
On his career: One of the things we loved about this interview was to see how Scott’s eyes lit up every time he mentioned the words “this is what I do for a living,” as if he still didn’t believe that he was actually earning money from what’s clearly his passion.
The world was different when Scott started blogging around 2006. There was no competition from bigger publications like The New York Times, so people really wanted to read what he wrote, he explains. “When I started this process,” Scott says, “I was very much with the intention that I wanted to do something entrepreneurial online from the get-go. And I think that was unusual, too, because very few people were thinking about blogging as a career at that point.”
He has lived up to that expectation. Scott’s operation is still growing as we speak. He has a mixed staff of full-time and freelance employees and who he meets with quarterly to review results. But he doesn’t want to lose the “personal” aspect of his blog.
As he says, he’s not a content creating machine that’s constantly producing. Instead, he likes to say, “I write about ideas, and I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about problems that people have. And I'm fortunate that some people like the ideas that I write about and they choose to read them.”
Scott is aware that some writers might approach blogging in a more strategic way. They write about topics that they know will get them more clicks. However, that’s not his style. Instead, he explains, “The only real principle that I've been able to follow when writing is making the kind of stuff that you would like to read as a consumer. I feel like the inspiration for writing about something is to write about a topic I would enjoy talking about in a conversation.” So when that inspiration does strike, he writes an article.
Proving that there’s no one right way to be successful when it comes to writing. But with time, everyone can find their own formula of success.
On online courses: Scott is a holistic entrepreneur. He writes a blog, a newsletter, has a podcast and a book, and also hosts a variety of different online courses.
He has four constantly running on his website:
Rapid Learner focuses on helping you learn faster and more efficiently.
Life of Focus is led by Scott and Cal Newport and is meant to help you improve your focus in your everyday life.
Top Performer is aimed at helping you deepen your understanding of your career and ways you can take advantage of it.
Make it Happen helps you understand your past struggles and come up with a new system for achievement.
If Scott has learned anything about making courses, it’s that you need to make the lessons frequent, short, and tight. The quality of the course will be the same, but if the goal is for others to actually learn, then you need to make it easy for them to do it.
He also recommends waiting until you have a substantial amount of followers/subscribers on your blog or newsletter before you decide to create an online course. He explained, “The free content is where you figure out your voice and your audience. Your content is only going to get better the more you practice it.” Therefore, he continued, since online courses will increase your revenue, you need to truly find the formula that allows you to add valuable and insightful free content before you try to monetize with paid courses.
It doesn’t mean that you need to wait forever to make money out of your blog/newsletter, Scott explains, but you need to take time to build an audience and authority, two key elements that are needed to make money from an online course.
On being an entrepreneur: Steve asked Scott what he would’ve liked to know earlier as an entrepreneur, and to Scott, there’s not really a right way to answer this. For him, starting a business has a huge experiential learning component. “I don't think someone making a copycat version of what I'm doing right now would be as successful just because it depends on so many idiosyncratic factors. You have to figure out what works for you,” Scott answered.
As Scott explains,there are no shortcuts — at least not when creating something online. You do it right and you could reach a lot of people. And people who are willing to pay for your products are exactly what you need to make money from your startup.
That’s why Scott’s advice is to, “make stuff that people really like and make compelling content. Put all of your resources into that and all the other problems will be much easier in the long run.”
On making an impact: Scott gives us the impression that he’s the kind of guy who’s great at objectively looking at problems before helping you solve them. We weren’t wrong in this case.
When asked for the best advice he could give someone who felt they were unable to make an impact, Scott answered, “I think there's a mindset shift that doesn't directly do anything, but it triggers other changes. You can change things in your life, and you can do things in a different way than you've done them.”
“A lot of people view their life as being all these immovable constraints,” he says. “They get boxed in.”
“And they get into these problems where there's really no solution based on the way they describe it,” Scott says. He says that based on how these problems are viewed, it’s true; those constraints are immovable. “But the idea is that some of those constraints are imaginary. Some of those things aren't actually true.”
He says that sometimes it’s not about the actual problem, but about the way we approach it.
“I think of it not in terms of blind optimism, or a certain faith — but really in a way that you could do something differently. Or maybe this thing that you think is this immovable obstacle actually could be moved.”
Do you have any “immovable” constraints that are getting in your way? Is there a way to approach the constraint differently?
Closing thoughts: Steve asked Scott to share one piece of advice with our readers. It was hard for him to choose just one, but he said, “Read more books, try out more things, have more experiments.” While it’s true that you also should pick and commit to goals, the constant learning process fosters idea generation, and even if not right away, “those little ideas are going to accumulate and help you in your life. And some of them maybe will happen at just the right moment, and they will cause a pivot for you and change a lot of other things.” Scott concluded.
Commit to living an all-time life of learning and your impact in the world will drastically change.
We can’t wait to see you do it!
Steve & Camila.
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10 Tips for an awesome coffee meeting - Nothing bad can happen over coffee. Or can it? A coffee meeting is a non-threatening/informal network meeting. Sean Blanda from Adobe 99u blog shares 10 tips to ace this kind of meeting. My favorite was “Offer to end up on time.” It shows you’re respectful of others’ time.
Measuring productivity is less important than managing it - Ever since the world moved to remote work it seems like managers are struggling to measure the productivity of their teams. Because in their minds, seeing their employees work means they’re being productive. This article from Gallup explains how measuring productivity might not be the most important metric, but another one might. Click to see which one they’re talking about.
The world’s worst boss - Seth Godin believes that the worst manager ever is each one of us. We are responsible for managing our own career and working on our personal development. If we treat each ourselves as “dumb” every time we make mistakes, or if we don’t put time into our own development, then we’re bad bosses.
A leader’s list of mental health concerns at work - It’s no lie that the pandemic has made a dent in the mental health of everyone on different levels. Leaders are aware of it. That’s why Forbes contributor Curt Steinhorst shares different ways to address these topics at work and be aware of signs to help your team.
If you’re looking to organize, improve and automate workflows, Pipefy might be the answer. This workflow management software has a Kanban-style and will help you and your team be more efficient. Read more about it here.
I loved this thread by Julian Shapiro. If you’re thinking about building a startup, then I guarantee you’ll find yourself reflected in this thread. Check it out!
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Meditation & productivity go together like PB&J. See why scientists think so. - Meditation can modify your brain and help you improve your memory, emotional processing, and decision making. Read about the types of meditation that can help you become more productive in this issue.
New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Secrets That Will Make You Emotionally Intelligent- In this blog post, “Barking up the wrong tree” author, Eric Barker, shares how human emotions are connected to World of Warcraft. He also digs into the '4Rs' that can improve your emotional intelligence
Is there a bully at work? Here’s how to deal with them. - Workplace bullies are as clever as they are cruel. They can be so sneaky that you might end up believing you’re the only one they are targeting. However, you don’t need to feel scared to go to work. Read about the type of work bullies and how to deal with them in the link above.
FOOD CURIOSITIES & ADVENTURES
Salt and Pepper can be found in virtually every restaurant and home across the world. But when black pepper wasn’t a thing, what did people use to condiment their foods? What was black pepper before there was black pepper? It goes way back to the origins: India. The lineage of the word pepper originates from Pippali -- an Indian Sanskrit word for "long pepper." It was used as a spice, as medicine, and as an aphrodisiac.
“One recipe from the Kama Sutra, calls for long pepper to be mixed with black pepper, other spices, and honey, with the promise to ‘utterly devastate your lady.’” according to Serious Eats.
I don’t know about that, but in Ancient Greece and Rome they considered long pepper as a luxury item and gave it its first westernized name “Peperi.”
Eventually, when sea routes were popularized, it was cheaper to move black pepper to the occident, giving us access to that marvelous spice.
How did the language transform along with the spice’s usage?
Pippali (Sanskrit) -> Peperi (Greek) -> Pfeffer (German) -> Peper (Dutch) -> Piper (Old English) -> Pepper (English).
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